James Kent’s The Aftermath opens with a bird’s-eye shot of a nighttime bombing of Hamburg, Germany at the tail end of World War II. The camera hovers so far above the bevy of explosions that they resemble fireworks. This troubling tendency to sanitize the brutality of war, by either regarding it from a distance or eliding it altogether, becomes increasingly prevalent as the film unfolds. Indeed, as soon as The Aftermath begins to catalog the trauma that exists within Hamburg in the wake of the Allied bombing, the extensive damage done to the city and the ongoing bloody conflicts between the victorious British soldiers and the remaining Hitler loyalists they’re trying to suss out are shown only in brief glimpses, ultimately overshadowed by the personal dramas of two well-to-do families.
The film initially attempts to justify its remoteness from the post-war chaos by fixating on the despondent Rachael (Keira Knightley), who finds herself isolated in Hamburg as she continues to mourn her son, who was killed several years earlier in the London Blitz. Her husband, Lewis (Jason Clarke), is a colonel in the British army, and rather than tend to her emotional wounds and try to rebuild their marriage in the wake of their loss, he chooses to lose himself in his work. His aloofness toward Rachael is then thrust into sharp relief by the patience and compassion he shows for the Germans he interrogates, at times protecting them from his more imperious colleagues. And against Rachael’s wishes, he even goes so far as to allow the recently widowed Stefan (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann), to continue living with them after commandeering the German man’s mansion.
In these early stretches, The Aftermath balances its focus on the underlying tensions between its four distrustful protagonists with a broader perspective on the complicated hostilities between an array of non-Nazi German citizens and the foreign soldiers, including Lewis, who see them all as suspects. And while the film is compelling in spurts when its attention lands on this element of post-war relations that’s so often overlooked by WWII-themed dramas, it’s not long before the filmmakers tip their hand, sidelining the specificities of German-British dealings in favor of the well-tread mechanics of a soapy wartime love story.
One can sense the inevitability of a love triangle forming between Stefan and Rachael from the moment he reacts to her initial scorn of him with a polite, almost cocky, amusement. Kent, however, does so little to fill in the blanks between their combativeness and Stefan and Rachael’s first bout of feverish lovemaking that their affair arises with a jarring abruptness. Icy tensions between the two melt solely at the behest of narrative demands, and all of a sudden, Rachael’s harsh antagonism, including her suspicion that Stefan may have been a Nazi, transforms into a heated passion that instantly has her ready to leave her husband behind.
A similarly unexpected change of heart occurs within Freda late in the film. Until this point, she’s done nothing but shunned, mocked, even hissed at her new house guests, yet after Rachael begins to play “Clair de Lune,” Freda sits next to her and also tickles the ivories, as if there wasn’t any animosity between them. Theirs is a strange and unearned act of reconciliation, and it’s made even more saccharine by the women sharing a tearful exchange after the scene is intercut with a flashback to Rachael holding her deceased son.
But this is par for the course in The Aftermath, which increasingly subsists on treacle and drastic about-faces in people’s behaviors. The film rapidly and clumsily devolves into a hermetically sealed melodrama that plays out almost exclusively within Stefan’s ornate mansion, and at a curious remove from the era’s harsh sociopolitical realities. In the end, the film’s threads of personal loss and cultural friction are all but lost amid the simultaneously undercooked and overwrought motions of the characters’ romantic entanglements.