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Non-Review Review: The Aftermath

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

The Aftermath starts with a fascinating premise.

Unfolding in the immediate wake of the Second World War, The Aftermath finds Rachael Morgan joining her husband Lewis Morgan in Hamberg for the British Occupation of the city. Tensions are running high. Most of the city lies in ruins, bodies still being pulled from the rubble. Both sides are nursing old wounds that threaten to fester. Rachel finds herself confronting these wounds even more acutely than she expected. When the Morgans move into a stately home on the outskirts of the city, Lewis suggests that the German family might remain there rather than being relocated to “the camps.” As a result, the two sides find themselves living under the same roof; British and German, occupied and occupier, winner and loser.

This is an intensely charged set-up, and one with a lot of potential. It is one thing to fight a war, it is another to end it. Reconciliation is always a challenge, particularly when dealing with a catastrophe on the scale of the Second World War. Given the trauma that both sides inflicted upon one another and the scars that still sting, forcing a British and German family to live in close proximity while those wounds are still fresh should lead to incredible drama. What is it like to surrender one’s home to an occupying force, but to linger there as a guest – or maybe a ghost? What is like to be surrounded by a people who were once bent on conquest and domination, but now find themselves at the mercy of the nations they tried to subjugate?

The Aftermath doesn’t really answer these questions. Indeed, it often struggles to articulate them. Instead, it offers a clichéd romantic triangle melodrama against this backdrop, offering a decidedly trashy narrative within the trappings of prestige. The Aftermath has an engaging central performance from Keira Knightley, but it suffers from a lack of chemistry between its three leads and a truly terrible management of tone. The Aftermath aspires to be a story of a simmering cold war, but is completely lacking any spark.

The central dynamic in The Aftermath is the tension that exists between Rachael Morgan and Stefan Lubert. As befitting a movie set in Germany and dealing with notions of guilt and culpability, Stefan is an architect. Rachael has just arrived in Hamburg from the United Kingdom, her husband playing a major role in providing security for British forces working within Germany. Perhaps hoping to strike a fragile peace with the city’s inhabitants, perhaps just tired of living in a constant state of war, Lewis Morgan invites Stefan and his daughter to remain in the house. The Aftermath has both Lewis and Stefan assert that all they really wanted during the Second World War was for it “to be over.”

There is something faintly uncomfortable in how The Aftermath approaches the character of Stefan. The film repeatedly broaches Stefan’s culpability in the horrors of the Nazi regime – the “stain” left by the hastily-taken-down portraits of “him” are a recurring visual and thematic motif. However, the film never digs beneath the surface. Indeed, The Aftermath seems utterly unwilling to even entertain the idea that Stefan might have been complicit in the crimes of Nazi Germany, even unwillingly and even passively. To confront Stefan with photographs of the concentration camps is presented as an attack upon him, to question whether he knew on some level what was happening is to undermine his dignity.

This is an interesting approach to the theme of reconciliation that runs through The Aftermath. Not only does the film suggest that the necessary reconciliation is between Britons and Germans rather than between the German people and their Jewish neighbours, but it also suggests that to even acknowledge something like the Holocaust is to undermine any effort to press forward. The Aftermath insists that the most important thing to do in the wake of trauma is to keep moving forward. Actually confronting what happened, and apportioning blame or responsibility, is a distraction that can only cause more harm than good. The Aftermath suggests that the past is best left in the past. It is no coincidence that the film ends with all its characters leaving Hamburg.

This makes a certain amount of sense in the context of trying to frame The Aftermath as a period melodrama about two families dealing with trauma. Both the Morgans and the Luberts have been profoundly affected by the Second World War, both families shattered by the intimate horrors of a global conflict. The meditations on trauma in The Aftermath are often framed in personal terms, the cultural context often serving as a reflection of a more personal sense of loss or suffering. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Many films use the personal to mirror the political, as a window into much bigger issues with a much broader context. The chaos in Mexico City in Roma reflects the uncertainty in Cleo’s life, the carnage in Beirut reflecting its lead’s emotional state.

The problem with The Aftermath is that the film never quite finds the right balance. The film never seems to seriously consider if it is possible for a society to move past a trauma like the Second World War, and whether it is desirable to move past something like the Holocaust. There is a strange “both-sides-ism” that runs through The Aftermath, which seems to think that the only way to truly humanise Stefan is to suggest an equivalence between Germany and Britain. This feels like a misguided impulse and best and disingenuous at worst. It is unlikely that this creative choice is rooted in malice or vindictiveness, simply in narrative expedience. However, the lack of thought that The Aftermath affords to this basic question of guilt and shame illustrates the central issue.

The film is a bizarre tonal mismatch that tries to satisfy too many masters, and winds up disappointing all of them. There are any number of strange narrative and creative choices in The Aftermath that speak to the challenge of trying to construct a family melodrama in this setting. At one point, a gritty brutal interrogation sequence cuts sharply to a magical winter romantic getaway. At another point, an argument between Rachael and Lewis is interrupted by an assassination attempt that conveniently resolves itself in a very neat fashion so that the film can get back to the marital struggles as though they never missed a beat. Neither half of the equation is well served by these wild shifts.

The Aftermath is also somewhat undercut by the lack of chemistry between its three leads. The Aftermath leans rather heavily into its trashier sensibilities, particularly in terms of the sordid affair that develops between Rachael and Stefan. There is something endearingly lurid about the very visceral and aggressive nature of their dynamic, the emphasis that The Aftermath places on their physical attraction rather than any emotional or psychological connection. Then again, this may simply be an effort on the part of script and direction to compensate for the fact that their emotional and psychological connection makes no real sense when considered in context and nothing about their behaviour seems organic or natural.

However, despite the emphasis that The Aftermath places on the physicality of the relationship between Rachael and Stefan, there is no tangible on-screen chemistry between Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård. There is nothing in their scenes together that suggests any deepseated want or desire, nothing that would justify the risk inherent in embarking on an affair together. There is no simmering passion, no rising heart rate, no mounting desire. Both actors are fine on their own terms, and chemistry is very hard to nail down in casting a film like this, but there is nothing in the air between Knightley and Skarsgård to suggest why Rachael and Stefan would be drawn to one another so quickly with so little restraint considering the stakes.

There’s a recurring sense that The Aftermath is never sure at what level it wants to pitch itself. Is it a prestige period drama meditating on the complexity of trying to reestablish order in the wake of a horrific conflict, or is a saucy tale about a sordid affair that could at any moment become a trashy scandal? Neither approach is inherently invalid, but The Aftermath suffers from a reluctance to commit to one approach over the other. The result is a film that never quite meshes, that seems convinced of a profundity that it never earns and which seems ashamed of the seedier elements of its storytelling. This is a movie that touches on ideas like occupation, terrorism, insurgency, child soldiers, but which also plays like an R-rated Christmas advertisement for an upmarket boutique.

The result is a serious misfire.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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