The first shot of The Aftermath is a dispassionate view of an aerial attack, a bombing run that blows the city below into smithereens. The city is Hamburg, which was set ablaze in 1943 and lay in ruins after the end of World War II. But, disfigured by rubble, it could be mistaken for almost anywhere—just one way the director, James Kent, tries to convey the terrible might of the bombardment. When a British woman named Rachael Morgan (played by Keira Knightley) arrives in Hamburg three years later, she beholds a place so ravaged by war that it’s hard not to have some sympathy for those who live there.
That might sound like a difficult premise to get on board with—that Rachael, visiting an occupied Germany still in the process of denazification, should be able to quickly set aside Britain’s enmity toward the country. But that’s the argument that The Aftermath, based on a 2013 novel by Rhidian Brook, attempts to make by having Rachael move to Hamburg with her military husband, Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), and try to get along with the German family she has to share a home with. Then, the story enters even trickier territory, as Rachael begins to fall in love with her Teutonic host, Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård).
Stephen is haunted not by the sins of Nazi Germany, but by the personal toll the war took on him. That’s why The Aftermath begins with a devastating glimpse of the Hamburg firebombing campaign. Stephen and Rachael are both scarred by the conflict—he lost his wife in the blaze, and Rachael lost her son to a German bomb not long after. Those twin tragedies draw the pair to each other, and Kent’s film is primarily concerned with how shared loss can bind even the most disparate people together. But given that this is a drama set in the shadow of Nazism, embracing that idea might require too big an emotional leap for some viewers.
As Stephen repeatedly insists to the U.S. military forces occupying Hamburg, he was a reluctant Nazi. He was never an official member of the party, but rather someone who stood by mutely as his country fell to fascism. His stately home is requisitioned and handed to Lewis and Rachael as housing, but Lewis allows Stephen and his daughter to stay, arguing that the occupying British soldiers ought to be magnanimous in victory. Over the following months, a romance between Stephen and Rachael develops, starting with hostility, building to flirtation, and then blooming into a full-on, clandestine affair.
Star-crossed passion can be the stuff of great drama, but The Aftermath never digs into the muddy details of Rachael and Stephen’s relationship, or the fraught implications of falling for the enemy. The film has the glossy sheen of a 1950s Hollywood drama, with impeccable costuming, slightly leaden dialogue, and many charged looks exchanged from the opposite ends of sumptuous rooms. Skarsgård’s biggest asset as an actor is his icy, piercing eyes, and Kent (a British TV director who also made the 2014 World War I film Testament of Youth) takes full advantage of them, having Stephen gaze at Rachael mysteriously as often as possible to build up the sexual tension.
Even though Knightley and Skarsgård’s chemistry is strong enough to make the affair plausible, the plot mostly dances around the darker underpinnings of their relationship. Soon after moving in, Rachael inquires about a discolored spot on Stephen’s wall; he remarks that the painting that once hung there was damaged and removed. Quickly enough, Rachael figures out the truth: That was where his portrait of Adolf Hitler hung, a symbol of acquiescence to the Nazi government that cannot be easily erased. But though that stain is a powerful visual metaphor, the film doesn’t explore it much further once the affair has begun.
The Aftermath asks the audience to forgive Stephen because of his own personal tragedy—in the movie, he’s defined largely by the death of his wife, just as Rachael is defined by the death of her son (a trauma that Lewis, who takes a stiff-upper-lip approach, failed to emotionally process). The script, by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, conveys little beyond the fact that Stephen and Rachael are both sad, nice to each other, and very attractive. Their coupling should be somewhat shocking and transgressive, but the film somehow manages to make the story of a fiery tryst with an ex-Nazi dull by diluting every character so that modern audiences can better relate to them. The Aftermath might have succeeded had it challenged viewers. But by squeezing the story into a plain period-romance format, Kent achieved the opposite.