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New Release Review - THE AFTERMATH

the aftermath review
While her army husband is distracted by the reconstruction of post-WWII Germany, a British woman conducts an affair with a German.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: James Kent

Starring: Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Flora Thiemann, Martin Compston, Kate Phillips

the aftermath poster


Serial killers often receive letters from adoring women, and some have even married female fans in prison ceremonies. It's naive to think that women aren't capable of falling for monsters, and cinema shouldn't steer clear from this uncomfortable truth. The question however is how should such disturbing relationships be portrayed?

The Aftermath is the first of two controversial British romantic dramas in which Nazis - or at best 'Nazi adjacent' - German men are portrayed as objects of desire coming to screens in 2019. I can't yet speak for how director Amma Asante portrays her central relationship in the upcoming When Hands Touch, but director James Kent's Mills & Boon approach with The Aftermath is deeply misjudged and problematic.


the aftermath review

A few months after the end of WWII and the German city of Hamburg lies in ruins. Assigned as part of the British military's reconstruction taskforce is Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), who along with his wife, Rachael (Kiera Knightley), takes over the palatial home of architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård). Lubert and his teenage daughter, Flora (Flora Thiemann), are due to be relocated in a nearby camp, but Lewis takes pity on them and allows the pair to remain in their home.

Initially, Rachael is understandably cold towards her German host. Her 11-year-old son was killed during a German bombing raid in London, so she's naturally uncomfortable now finding herself in the belly of the beast. Stefan has experienced a great loss himself, his wife similarly killed by a British bomb. Through a combination of shared grief and both parties looking like very attractive movie stars, Rachael and Stefan begin a steamy affair.

There's a worrying trend of movies that attempt to equate the tough actions the Allied forces had to take with the violence of the Fourth Reich, movies which pose the question "Were we just as bad as the Nazis?" Paul Verhoeven's Dutch resistance drama Black Book sees its heroine fall for a Nazi officer and includes a scene where a female Dutch collaborator is 'punished' by having her head shaved, a sequence Verhoeven shoots in such a way to equate it with the atrocities of the Nazis. The Danish drama Land of Mine tut tuts at Nazi prisoners being made to clear land mines from the Danish beach where they laid them in the first place. The Aftermath sees its British filmmakers beat themselves up over the bombing of Hamburg, regarding it on the same level as the Blitz. Britain has a lot of historical crimes to apologise for; mistreating Nazis isn't one of them.


the aftermath review

This is all in aid of allowing the viewer to feel sorry for Stefan. Maybe I'm an unforgiving monster myself, but I simply couldn't find any sympathy for a wealthy man who happily sat by in his mansion while his country wreaked havoc on Europe. There's a subplot concerning Stefan being investigated to determine whether he had any ties to the Nazi party, but frankly that's irrelevant. He may not have been a party member, but if he didn't make any effort to oppose them he might as well have been. And let's face it, he wouldn't have been allowed to live in such a splendid home if he was even remotely suspected of not backing the Fuhrer. Stefan may have Skarsgård's dreamy eyes, and he may be in mourning for his wife (though he seems to forget her pretty quickly as soon as he jumps into bed with Rachael), but he's still a reprehensible coward at best, a collaborator at worst.

Rachael herself isn't exactly easy to sympathise with either. She constantly makes her husband feel guilty about not spending enough time with her, failing to realise that he's busy with, you know, cleaning up after the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. Read the room Rachael! Lewis's failure to engage with his wife's selfishness is supposed to help the audience get behind her affair with Stefan, but it takes a complete ignorance of European history to do so.

An interesting movie could be made from this plot, but it would be one that fully engages with just how morally messed up the whole affair is. The Aftermath is from that school of elegant but bland British period drama, all tea and (Nazi) sympathy, and it refuses to get its hands sufficiently dirty by exploring the psyche of a woman willing to ditch her husband for a man indirectly responsible for the death of her child, among millions more.


the aftermath review

Aside from that, The Aftermath is a sloppy piece of storytelling, with subplots that are nowhere near as fleshed out as they really should be. Stefan's daughter hasn't forgiven the British for her mother's death and falls under the influence of a teenage SS soldier, now part of an underground terrorist cell, yet she accepts Rachael as a potential stepmother simply because she can play a good rendition of 'Clair de Lune' on the family piano. The matter of Stefan's investigation is forgotten by the film until a late revelation is dished out in a lazy piece of scriptwriting, a line of dialogue taking the place of an entire excised side narrative.

Many of the movies banned in Britain under the '80s Video Nasty act were of the sub-genre known as Nazisploitation. It's true those movies are indefensibly sleazy and distasteful, but most of them were made by Jews and left-wing Italians with skin in the game, and they always portrayed Nazis with a righteous contempt (maybe that's why the Thatcher government opposed them). It's ironic to see mainstream British cinema now attempt to rehabilitate Nazis. I'll take a down and dirty '70s Nazisploitation movie over prestige trash like The Aftermath every day of the week.

The Aftermath is in UK/ROI cinemas March 1st.


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