The film The Aftermath is on general release from today. It stars Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård and Jason Clarke. I read the novel when it was first published in 2013. It had already been commissioned as a screenplay. It’s a truly wonderful book. Does the film match up? I was fortunate to be invited to an advance screening.
The Aftermath is set in post war Germany in the autumn and winter of 1945/6. Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives in the ruins of Hamburg in the bitter winter, to be reunited with her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), a colonel of the British Forces charged with rebuilding the shattered city. But as they set off for their new home, Rachael is stunned to discover that Lewis has made an unexpected decision: they will be sharing the grand house with its previous owners, a German widower (Alexander Skarsgård) and his troubled daughter. In this charged atmosphere, enmity and grief give way to passion and betrayal.
‘You are about to meet a strange people in a strange enemy country.‘
Reconciliation appears impossible, let alone forgiveness, in war-torn Hamburg. The Aftermath is inspired by the true life account of Rhidian Brook’s grandparents. His grandfather was sent to Hamburg after the war to take control of it. A large house was requisitioned for him and his family. Instead of kicking the German owners out, Brook’s grandfather asked them to stay and the two families lived happily alongside each other for five years. Their story is a happier one. But it was this noble gesture that inspired Rhidian Brook to write this story and ask the question – what if? The book has been pared back to reveal the emotional heart of the story – devastating loss and forgiveness. How can citizens from two warring nations live alongside each other?
Keira Knightley excels as Rachael Morgan, as she does in all period pieces. Her fragility as Rachael is subtlety revealed through flashback images, music (Knightley playing Clair de Lune is a very emotionally charged scene) and significant objects such as the cigarette case she gave to Lewis, her husband. In it are photos of their son, Michael, who was killed during a bombing raid.
Jason Clarke, as Colonel Lewis Morgan, is a different kind of British soldier. Ashamed of what he has done during the war, he’s intent on rescuing Hamburg. Near the beginning of the film he tells Rachael, ‘More bombs were dropped on Hamburg in one weekend than London during the entire war.’ It’s a fact that is often forgotten.
The bombing created a firestorm that killed thousands and thousands of people. In the story, Lubert’s wife was killed. Like Rachael, he too is mourning and is struggling to be a father to his daughter, Freda. In The Little Drummer Girl, Alexander Skarsgård played the very aloof and brooding Gadi. As Stefan Lubert, he initially appears that way but there is considerably more warmth in this performance as Stefan dares to believe in a life beyond the war.
The beautiful house is in stark contrast to the ruined city of Hamburg. Set five months after the end of the war, bodies are still being found. Twenty-five thousand people are missing. Renegade Nazis are attacking British soldiers whenever they can. Add to that a freezing cold and snowy winter, it’s a pretty dreadful place to be.
So, if like me you’ve read the book, should you see the film? Absolutely. Paring back to the three main characters makes for great intensity and emotional connection.
If you see the film, should you then read the book? Absolutely. Minor characters in the story add depth and colour. In fact, my favourite character, Ozi, doesn’t make it into the film and his story, for me, is the most devastating of them all. Plus, Brook is a wondrous wordsmith. This is one of my favourite sections from the novel.
‘Outside, there was balm in the scene: the skies had cleared of yesterday’s slate-grey snowclouds and were as blue and clean as a senior ward sister’s tunic. The low-angled sun made everything sparkle, while the thickness of the snow was felty and reassuring and as white and bobbly as hospital linen. It was beautiful and frustrating. It would gave the minister a false impression. On such a day as this, a visitor who had just arrived might be forgiven for thinking that Hamburg was making a startling recovery. The snow disguised the trauma by throwing an equalizing blanket over everything, giving jagged metal and broken brick a new hopeful covering. It was a bad day to conduct a tour that was meant to show how ugly and grey life was amidst the German ruins.’
Overall, Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgård are stunning as Rachael and Stefan as their grief draws them together but it’s Jason Clarke’s performance towards the end of the film that had me in tears. A stylish but heart-breaking movie. Five stars.
If you want to know more about the film, the book and the incredible true story that inspired it, then come along to West Barnes Library on Monday 18th March at 7.30pm. Rhidian Brook will be joined by Elisabeth Gifford whose novel, The Good Doctor of Warsaw, is also based on true events in Poland during WW2.
To find out more about Rhidian Brook and buy The Aftermath, click here.
Rhidian Brook is an award-winning writer of fiction. His first novel, The Testimony of Taliesin Jones, won several prizes including the Somerset Maugham Award. His third, The Aftermath, was an international bestseller and has been translated into twenty-five languages. It is now a major motion picture. His latest novel is The Killing of Butterfly Joe. He has written for television and the screen and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’.