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The Aftermath: A post-war love story set in the ruins of Hamburg

The Aftermath
directed by James Kent

A city levelled by Allied bombers takes a backseat to an implausible WWII-era romance.

Over eight days in 1943, the combined might of the Allied air forces levelled most of Hamburg in bombing raids that created a tornado of fire, killing 42,600 residents. The German city’s ruins are the setting for The Aftermath, a film that tries – though ultimately fails – to turn the traditional World War II drama on its head.

In October 1945, five months after VE Day, Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) travels to Hamburg to join her British officer husband, Lewis (Jason Clarke), who is part of the British occupation, which aims to denazify the city. She appears shocked by the destruction – there isn’t a complete building in sight – but turns her nose up at Germans. “These people,” she sneers. She has particular disdain for Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), whose wife was killed in the inferno two years earlier and whose grand manor house has been requisitioned by the Morgans.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

How curious to find the British, often unqualified heroes in stories such as this, coarse and full of superior prejudice. “The war is over,” one character says curtly. “We won. That’s the end of it.” And Knightley, such a regular in these period pieces, plays Rachael with arch rigidity and coolness – an unlikeable character – which makes a nice change.

It’s even stranger to find Germans recast not as total villains, but as actual people. Lubert was never a Nazi Party member, and he feels quietly indignant towards the British because of the annihilation of his city and his family. The first act of The Aftermath, based on Rhidian Brook’s best-selling novel of the same name, is a chilly and skilful examination of loss and the ironies of liberation.

Of course, when you have Knightley and Skarsgård in a film together, there’s little chance of it remaining chaste. An implausible affair upends the character study. The film begins to sag dreadfully as the couple frolic in elaborate knitwear near the Elbe River or canoodle in a country cottage. A significant subplot involving Lewis’ hunt for resurgent Hitlerites is inexplicably dropped. And the ruins of Hamburg, perhaps the most interesting part of the picture, are never seen again.

Which is a real shame. There are hints of intrigue here, and the idea of new love springing from deep despair would be fertile territory. But, in the end, The Aftermath resolves into just another handsome, syrupy romance.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

Video: 20th Century Fox NZ

This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.