The Aftermath forces upon its audience a near-impossible question that nobody really wants to answer: Can one hold on to justified and unbridled rage at Nazi sympathizers yet also express sympathy to those who were ruled by the Nazis?
The answer, at least in director James West’s adaptation of a 2013 novel by Welsh author Rhidian Brook, wants to be…maybe?
Underwritten and emotionally bottled, The Aftermath follows an Army colonel, Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), and his wife, Rachael (Keira Knightley), as a couple in British-occupied Germany in late 1945 who move into a grand old mansion owned by single-dad architect Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), who may or may not have done things for the Nazis during the war.
Colonel Morgan sees the bombed-out remains of Hamburg as a horror he abetted — “We dropped more bombs on it in one weekend than the they did the entirety of the Blitz,” he remarks at one point — and a chance to make nice with a defeated enemy’s population. Sure, there are random gangs of stray Hitler Youth roaming around and offing British soldiers, but Morgan is less concerned with stamping out an uprising than he is with being a stiff diplomat in an olive greatcoat.
Rachael, meanwhile, gets the run of an unfamiliar mansion while Herr Lubert and his teenage daughter get booted to the attic. While there’s talk of them leaving if Stefan can get his traveling papers — the script leaves it murky about just how deep his Nazi collaboration ran — the Luberts stick around, giving Rachael a hunky scene partner while Lewis is out playing peacemaker.
It isn’t long until Rachael and Stefan wind up exactly where you suspect. After all, she’s followed her cold and sexless marriage to a strange land, and he’s trying to rebuild his life after being ambiguously complicit in the biggest genocide in the history of human civilization. And they both lost somebody when their cities were bombed. But most importantly, they’re both really attractive — it’s Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård! — and out of their sadness and hotness comes a dull, rote melodrama.
As ex-Nazi-shagging sob stories go, The Aftermath never reaches the offensiveness of 2008’s still-inconceivably Oscar-nominated The Reader. Instead, it unimaginatively plods through the expected beats along a script that gives its three otherwise talented lead actors very little to work with. Knightley, who in other roles upends scenes with the twitch of an eyebrow, spends almost the entire movie keeping all her emotions suppressed until one very stagey uncorking near the end. Skarsgård gets even less to do, spending most of the 100-minute run time perfecting his Teutonic hangdog look.
And poor Colonel Morgan. Even with Clarke doing his level best as a good soldier, Lewis doesn’t crack the top rungs of Jason Clarke cuckold roles, as Vulture just recounted.
What’s left is a feeble attempt at a post-war tearjerker that never bothers to challenge its audience or probe its characters’ histories and motivations. This movie could be set anywhere else at any other time, and have just as little substance and none of the straining for resonance.