For the last 80 years, pop culture has remained enthralled with the morbid clarity of World War II. Despite its immense size, it is worshipped as the black and white war, the nightmare of axis tyranny toppled by the bravery of the good guys. Yet, rarely do we dare glance at the reality of what came next.
To its credit, “The Aftermath” does technically attempt to do this. An adaption of Rhidian Brook’s novel of the same name and directed by James Kent, “The Aftermath” is set in the mutilated ruins of 1946 Hamburg, Germany. The film follows British socialite Rachael (Keira Knightley) who, still struggling with the loss of her young son in the bombings, accompanies her distant military husband, Colonel Lewis (Jason Clarke), into the belly of the beast for his work. After occupying the mansion of Stephen (Alexander Skarsgård), a rich German architect, the couple must learn to somehow confront the harsh truths about the war and what comes next.
Make no mistake, with its cast (Clarke’s magnetic performance is the highlight of the film) and setup, the opportunities were endless. While the still haze that shrouds Hamburg’s listless wasteland may not make for as explosive and clear-cut a movie as one dominated by cackling Nazis, in the enormity of its tragedy there exists a startlingly epic reality to uncover. There was nothing glorious in the allied victory, only rubble and a need to run from the inferno in the rear-view mirror to the warm embrace of the Cold War. But in this grotesque stillness there lay something more effortlessly human than the barbarity of the war could ever grasp. The struggle over pain and morality and love when there were no more enemies to fight and only the truth remained.
But “The Aftermath” largely ignores this difficult world, instead lazily smushing a painfully awkward affair together with shoddy, political side stories. We the audience are left with a frustrating mess that, at its worst, is little more than a misguided Hallmark soap. Even at its best, while normally quite watchable, it’s still mostly unable to capture the epic weight of Europe’s destruction. In essence, it’s a movie that by and large cashes in on the suffering of a continent rather than honestly capturing the pain of its people.
And there was no reason for “The Aftermath” to fail like this.
As much as the film’s stilted writing may blur it, there’s nonetheless a hint of insightful nuance here. In the early scenes, one could even find a legitimate resemblance to “Casablanca” in all its politically urgent and emotionally captivating glory. Lewis’ morally righteous sensibilities contrast in fascinating ways against the bloodthirsty and war-weary sensibilities of Rachael and the rest of the British compatriots. And Martin Phipps’ soaring score, along with cinematographer Franz Lustig’s breathtaking imagery on screen, capture a hint of the moment’s fragile grace throughout the entire film.
But despite its initial promise, “The Aftermath” quickly devolves into a poorly paced color-by-number affair movie. To be clear, focusing on Stephen and Rachael’s illicit love is not a death sentence for the film; it’s not hard to imagine a story that successfully utilizes the vulnerability in these characters’ isolation and loneliness to develop a natural warmth. Even as forced and erotically indulgent as the courtship appears on screen, with a more daring script the movie (which is, after all, competently produced) could have been imbued with a noticeable pulse. But, as it is, the chemistry between these two is ice-cold and their underdeveloped relationship is dwarfed by the annihilation that surrounds them.
“The Aftermath” is by no means “Fifty Shades of Grey” set in the ruins of Nazi Germany. But by contrasting the emotionless relationships between these three stilted caricatures with the profoundly horrific world that lies outside the windows of their bougy German mansion, the whole ordeal is more than just a little pathetic.
Contact David Newman at [email protected].