Starring Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård as lovers in 1945 Hamburg, the romance behind The Aftermath doesn’t overcome the very odd values of the film.
Post-War Germany is one of the most fertile times for filmmakers to explore how war affects a nation. Stories of families reuniting after the Holocaust, or of the new forms of order that emerge, or of German citizens attempting to reckon with their own crimes have fascinated generations, most recently in films like Bridge of Spies, or a personal favorite film like the amazing German film Phoenix. But there is something incredibly off-putting about the message and story of The Aftermath, which is built entirely around a concept of “Not all Nazis” and working out from there.
Keira Knightley stars as Rachael, a woman who lost her only son in the Blitz of London and is now joining her husband in a similarly bombed out Hamburg with hopes of rekindling their relationship. When she arrives, her husband (a miscast Jason Clarke) introduces her to Lubert, a recently widowed architect who is being evicted alongside his daughter Freda. Lubert is played by the superheroically handsome Alexander Skarsgård, He begins to live in the attic of his own house, developing a star-crossed flirtation with Rachael. Skarsgård’s chemistry with the electromagnetic Knightley is the core of the film and their romance is boosted by how charming their performances are. This, however, doesn’t erase the fact that Skarsgård is playing a Nazi who is at one point seemingly insinuated to have been an architect of concentration camps. And this is where the movie falls very very flat.
The Aftermath is filled with the cliches you would find in any romantic drama, from a dramatic moment where they kiss and then slap each other, to a complicated love triangle, to having sex in a public place where they were very likely to be caught. But all of this is between a suspected Nazi and an army officer’s wife, where the main conflict has nothing to do with his possible crimes. A film equating England’s actions after WWII to those of Nazis isn’t out of the question, but the execution of it here is so weak that it loses any message it intended to have had. The film mostly just presents their affair as a matter of fact, not taking any time to consider the implications of their relationship. If he had been another officer in the British military, the film would not be much different.
On the surface of the film, it is about as prestige looking and feeling as possible. It looks at times like a cross between a Steven Spielberg WWII movie and Carol, down to the mustard/olive/maroon color palate (used to better effect in Todd Haynes’ work). The music also sounds like that of Carol, with Martin Phipps composing a great score that fits the way music takes center stage in the film (a set piece involves Knightley’s character playing her lover’s dead wife’s piano and favorite song). The director of The Aftermath, James Kent, doesn’t do a bad job at making the film look good. But looks don’t mean much in service of a simple story and plot.
Keira Knightley is like a bright light in the middle of darkness, drawing attention to herself at all times. She outshines a thoroughly boring film from start to finish, elevating it to a sort of watchable that the script doesn’t earn in the first place.
The film is now playing.