Cast: Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, Alexander Skarsgård, Fionn O'Shea
Director: James Kent
Genre: Drama, Romance
Running Time: 120 minutes
Synopsis: The Aftermath is set in postwar Germany in 1946. Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) arrives in the ruins of Hamburg during the bitter winter, to be reunited with her husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), a British colonel 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.
Release Date: April 18th, 2019
"I'd never really considered that moment in history before"nobody could have known what the future held, least of all the defeated German people. It felt like a fantastic collision of an extraordinary and inspirational backdrop with a very personal and credible story."
-Jack Arbuthnott, Producer
After the end of the World War II, in the late 1940s, control of Germany was divided among the British, the Americans, the Russians, and the French"their combined mission was to help rebuild the war-ravaged nation. The port city of Hamburg, Germany's second largest city after Berlin, had suffered a devastating five-day bombing raid by the Allied forces in 1943 that killed 100,000 people and caused the destruction of 6,200 acres. Millions of German citizens were either homeless or without food, fuel, or other necessities when the British arrived. After the cessation of hostilities, the native population was barred from having any involvement in running their own affairs.
It is under these circumstances that Rachael Morgan travels from England to the ruins of Hamburg to be reunited with her husband Lewis, a British colonel charged with rebuilding the shattered city after the end of the second World War. As they set off for their new home, Rachael is stunned to discover that Lewis has made an unexpected decision: the couple will be sharing their residence with its previous owners, the architect who designed the grand house, Stephan Lubert, and his troubled teenage daughter, Freda. Although the sprawling estate offers plenty of room for both the English couple and the displaced Germans, the unconventional arrangement breeds tension and discomfort, with Rachael harboring a simmering resentment toward the guests she views as interlopers.
The arrangement makes Rachael deeply uncomfortable. She resents the presence of outsiders she perceives as suspect, and she longs instead for time alone with Lewis to help heal the wounds that have taken a toll on their marriage. But the charged atmosphere soon takes on a different tenor. Lubert discovers that Rachael is locked in a prison of sorrow over the death of her young son in a London air raid, while Rachael learns that Lubert lost his beloved wife in an Allied bombing campaign. Remarkably, the one person to sense the profound isolation Rachael feels is Lubert, a man who now haunts the rafters of his home like a ghost. Unable to practice his chosen profession without clearance from British officials, Lubert is forced to take a factory job as a metal press operator. He's a shadow of himself, struggling to hold together a façade of strength in the face of tremendous uncertainty as he waits for the next chapter of his life to begin.
As she begins to absorb the weight of what they, too, lost in the conflict, Rachael's stance toward the Germans begins to soften, slowly, evidenced by small gestures. She invites Freda to practice piano in the main living quarters any time she would like. Slowly, the tension between Rachael and Lubert begins to take on a different dimension, as she begins to see him as a kindred injured spirit and finds herself drawn to him.
Lewis, meanwhile, remains oblivious to the blossoming relationship between Rachael and Lubert, too consumed by his duties and too closed off from Rachael to take note of her infidelity. Only too late does he realize what his neglectful attitude might have cost him.
Rachael and Stephen's two wounded souls find themselves in the grips of a reluctant attraction that pulls them ever closer to one another. Finally, enmity and grief give way to passion and betrayal, changing the course of their lives forever.
An Untold Moment In History
Rhidian Brook, author of the 2013 international best-selling novel The Aftermath, used the seed of his own grandfather's improbable history to inspire this remarkable story. Colonel Walter Brook was one of the English officers dispatched to Germany to get the country back on its feet after years of death and destruction. Governor of a district near Hamburg, Walter Brook, requisitioned a house for his family but chose not to have its German owners evicted. Thus, two families"who months before had been on opposite sides of the deadly conflict"found themselves sharing a home, an arrangement that lasted for five years.
Walter Brook was the inspiration for Colonel Lewis Morgan, the enlightened and altruistic army officer who allows Stephan Lubert, an architect awaiting official permission to work again, to stay on in his mansion on the Elbe. "Although the events depicted in the aftermath are of my own making, this story could not have been written without my grandfather's unique act of kindness," says Rhidian Brook.
The Aftermath script focused on Rachael's strained marriage to Lewis and her growing connection to Lubert. The sensitivity and nuance with which the love triangle was drawn appealed to director James Kent, a veteran of film, television, and documentaries who won acclaim with his 2014 feature Testament of Youth, starring Oscar®-winner Alicia Vikander as a British woman coming-of-age during World War I. "It's about a bereaved woman who has lost her child during the war," Kent says. "It's a universal story of how you repair yourself and move on in life. It's got a very redemptive message, which was very important to me."
In 2010, the novelist and screenwriter pitched the story to Scott Free, the U.S-UK production company founded by brothers Ridley and Tony Scott. "Rhidian started telling me the true story of his family's time in Hamburg and then the fictional story inspired by that," says Scott Free executive and The Aftermath producer Jack Arbuthnott.
Arbuthnott brought the project to Ridley Scott and was amazed to learn that the director lived in Hamburg at the exactly the time the story was set. "Ridley has an extraordinary memory for what the time was like," Arbuthnott says. "He showed me photos of him and his brother Tony with their dog standing by their bicycles outside their house in Hamburg. It was a striking piece of serendipity."
"It completely recalled my childhood," says Scott of the project. "In 1947, I was 10 at the time, my father was important in the army"we lived in Frankfurt, then in Hamburg. My house in Frankfurt, in fact, was the house of a German officer. My mother was very friendly toward his wife who would come once a month to check that we were looking after the house. So, it was very similar, except my mother didn't have an affair with the German housekeeper."
As Rhidian Brook began working on the script, he was offered a contract by Penguin Books to tell the story in novel form, a project that became 2013's The Aftermath. Although Brook remained involved in developing the film and revising the screenplay, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (whose previous credits include the Jesse Owens biopic Race) were also brought on to shape the screenplay. "They gave the screenplay a new simplicity and coherence," says Jack Arbuthnott. "They deepened the characters and brought a rigorous, fresh approach that was the perfect complement to Rhidian's work."
An avid student of history, director James Kent was struck not just by the complexity of the characters and the emotional arc of the story but also by the singular backdrop that serves as the setting for the film. "It's an extraordinary moment"the world's been absolutely laid flat in a way it never had before," Kent says. "The British in particular felt very strongly that we shouldn't repeat what happened at the end of the First World War, so the idea of punishing Germany was off the agenda. For me, that makes it an astonishingly generous, positive, and far-sighted moment in British history. Of course, the European Union came out of this moment, and it felt to me like this was something that spoke to us very directly now."
Keira Knightley As Rachael Morgan
"I didn't know that there was an English occupation of Germany after the war, so I was really interested in the idea of how, when you've been enemies for so long, do you suddenly see people as people again, and not simply as evil and on the other side?"
One of the most respected actors working today, Academy Award-nominee Keira Knightley eagerly signed on to play Rachael Morgan, a woman struggling to deal with the death of her young child and baffled and shocked by her husband's decision to share a house with someone she sees as the enemy. "In drama, you normally deal with the bit that leads up to the dramatic moment"in this case the death of their son," Knightley says. "But this film asks, what happens after that? How as a couple do you come out of something that is so unimaginably horrific? How do you rebuild a relationship? I thought it was all something that I'd never explored before."
The Aftermath required Knightley to deliver a finely calibrated performance, portraying a woman who is forced to hide her wildly turbulent inner life behind a mannered mask of composure. "I was very fortunate to have Keira Knightley," says director Kent. "The film was perfectly attuned for her. This is a story of a woman who's been married some 15 years and is therefore quite a mature woman and also a woman who is a mother. Keira had become a mother months before filming began, so for her, the film was a sort of fruition of her life experience. It was quite a complex role for her, and it was a joy to see her settle into it."
The film also offered Knightley, an actress whose resume is studded with standout performances in numerous period dramas, the opportunity to learn about the era during which the film takes place. "I didn't know anything about this particular part of history," says Knightley. "I didn't know that there was an English occupation of Germany after the war, so I was really interested in the idea of how, when you've been enemies for so long, do you suddenly see people as people again, and not simply as evil and on the other side? It's a really difficult thing to do when you've lived through such incredibly violent times and everybody has experienced such loss."
Regarding the complexity of Rachael's emotions, Knightley remarked on the simmering hatred and loathing that lived just below the surface, "She is, for all intents and purposes, prejudiced," Knightley says of Rachael. "In her mind, it's us and them. She despises them. She blames them for the death of her son and the entire war."
To prepare, Knightley studied texts dealing with grief including Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking, Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, and C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed. "It was interesting playing a character who's reacting to completely new surroundings," Knightley says. "She's lived through the war, through being bombed in London. What she's never seen is the catastrophe that had happened in Germany. I quite liked the idea that she came in with her fixed idea of who these people would be and then suddenly is forced to confront the fact that they are people who are grieving in the same way that she is grieving, who have suffered incredible loss in the same way that she has."
For Knightley, The Aftermath is an intimate story about a woman who, having suffered a cataclysmic experience, finds a way to rebuild her life and move toward a more hopeful future. But it's also a film with a larger message about the importance of forgiveness, compassion, and the fundamental need for human connection.
"I hope people are as moved as I was when I read the script," says Knightley. "The themes within the piece really stuck with me: how do you see the humanity in people that you've been raised to believe are evil. How do you bring a nation back from destruction? How do you respond to the aftermath of something so monstrous and horrific? How do you get through to the other side? I think particularly in the present time they're unbelievably important things to think about."
Knightley interprets the trajectory of Rachael and Lubert's relationship as almost inevitable because of the personal tragedy they have in common, and their understandable desperation to deal with their all-consuming grief. "You want to feel something other than the incredible pain that you're in, so I think sex comes into that quite a lot," Knightley says. "The relationship with Lubert begins with a sexual need. But also he's somebody who understands what she's going through and will confront it, as opposed to her husband, whose way of dealing with his grief is to simply not talk about it, to shut down and not in any way give her the support that she needs. That pushes her into finding solace somewhere else."
Knightley says that the environment director James Kent maintained on set helped push her to do her best work. "He just creates this amazingly optimistic, lovely atmosphere," Knightley says. "It's such a relief when you're doing something about grief and suffering that you're actually working with somebody who manages to make things so light."
Jason Clark As Colonel Lewis Morgan
"At a certain point, he feels like he's going to lose his wife if he doesn't change, if he doesn't do something, but that comes too late. It's a beautiful meditation on love and on being human."
– Jason Clarke
Australian actor Jason Clarke portrays Lewis Morgan, the English army colonel in charge of the British district of post-war Germany whose idealism masks an inability to grieve for his dead son. "Morgan is a soldier who fought on the front line and has moved into administration"he's risen through the ranks," says Clarke. "Over six years, he's become a soldier, married, and lost his child during the bombing in London. Lewis is sensitive to the plight of Europe and Germany, but not to his wife and what they've been through"they're trying to cope with their own loss. How do they find meaning? How do they put their lives back together? How do they find a way ahead after they've lost a child? How does a country? How does a world?"
Kent says an actor of Clarke's caliber was necessary to convey the many facets of Lewis's inner life. "Jason's character Lewis has to have alpha-male qualities," the director says. "He's a bit of a war hero. So, it was important that Jason had that authority but also with a gentle interior because you need to know that he loves Rachael. Jason worked so brilliantly on that"this strong, rather traumatized man whose civility has been ruptured by the violence he's experienced and has to somehow accommodate this woman who's come back into his life who has no knowledge of his war." Clarke commented on Lewis' perspective of the war that few could understand. He lived through the horrors of battle and has a different, more sympathetic perspective, underlining once more the estrangement that has developed between husband and wife. Says Clarke: "Lewis understands that you can't blame a whole nation, that a whole nation is not responsible."
Knightley and Clarke came to The Aftermath having had the benefit of previously working together on 2015's real-life adventure film Everest. "It's a very complex journey that Lewis and Rachael go on," says Clarke. "As an actor, you need to be with an actor you really are at ease with and have a confidence in because you've got to get into the moment pretty quick. Keira's just great like that. On The Aftermath, I knew immediately that she was going to steer the ship. She's the axis that we and a lot of the story revolves around."
Alexander Skarsgård As Stephan Lubert
"It's a beautiful story of love and loss and human resilience – about our capacity to, after going through the most horrific chapter in human history, reinvent yourself and begin again."
- Alexander Skarsgård
The other man in Rachael's orbit is Stephan Lubert, the dignified German architect who comes between the British couple, played by Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård, who won an Emmy for his fearsome depiction of an abusive husband in 2017's Big Little Lies. "Lubert is a very sophisticated man, very intelligent, and highly educated," Skarsgård says. "But he's a broken man. He has lost almost everything"his beloved wife Claudia, his job, and his house. In a way, he's lost his daughter Freda because she blames him for the death of her mother. He is struggling to reach her and connect with her."
Skarsgård says he appreciated the levels of nuance in the script. "I've read a lot of Second World War stories, and a lot of them are very black and white," he explains. "It's very much the Germans are all evil, and the Allied soldiers and civilians all good. The author will often throw in a token good guy on the German side to show that they're not all bad. The Aftermath went much deeper. To see Hamburg in 1945, the devastation"half the city was levelled and feral kids were running around the streets desperately trying to find food"that misery is heartbreaking. It shows the horrors of war on both sides. It's not clear cut, and it's not about winners and losers. It felt like a very different insight into the post-Second World War period."
"Alex has great qualities of stillness," says director Kent. "He portrays a pensive thought very well." Adds producer Arbuthnott: "Alex has this incredible humanity, which brought out the gentleness in Lubert that was there in the book and the script. It came alive on set in a way that we hadn't anticipated. It really helps to understand the difference between Lewis and Lubert and why Rachael was so taken by Lubert while Lewis was so distant from her."
Although Lubert was not a Nazi sympathizer, he's someone who turned a blind eye to the atrocities happening all around him, focusing instead on the welfare of his own family. "He's morally corrupt in a way," Skarsgård says. "He didn't know what was going on in the camps, but at the same time, he's carrying this guilt of not doing anything. He wasn't part of the resistance. He wasn't fighting against fascism. He just put his head down and got on with it, which he has to now live with and that is very difficult for him."
The Supporting Cast
Adding to the strain is the animosity directed at Lubert by his 16-year-old daughter Freda, played by actress Flora Thiemann, who blames her father for her mother's death and feels nothing but hatred for the English couple taking over their family's home"feelings that eventually drive her into the arms of Albert (Jannik Schumann), a young Nazi in hiding. "Freda feels there's no one she can talk to about what has happened," says Thiemann, who was just 14 when she was cast as Freda. "She is so lonely, she needs someone who can give her some distraction from everything. Albert, she found him interesting"it was also her first contact with any boy at all. She feels good with him because she thinks he's the only person who cares about her."
Kent says he was impressed by Thiemann's rare combination of youth and professionalism. "I fell in love with Flora when she walked in," says director Kent. "You have to remember that sixteen-year-old girls were much more innocent then, and Flora had that innocence, even though she's been acting since the age of six so she is very self-composed."
Barely concealing her hatred toward Lubert, Rachael tries to establish something resembling a normal life, but normalcy proves elusive in a foreign land. Even her friendship with the socially- minded Susan Burnam (Kate Phillips), wife to Lewis' colleague Major Keith Burnam (Martin Compston), offers her little in the way of candor. Rachael can never honestly reveal her innermost thoughts without worrying about becoming the subject of gossip or scorn.
Jack Arbuthnott commented on director James Kent's exceptional connection with the cast: "James has an extraordinary sensitivity that is reflected in all of his work and is the primary reason why he was such a good fit for this material. He's driven by the truth of performances; he's wonderful with actors. It was a constant pleasure to see how he gets the best from people and that he is able to do this in such a tender way. The approach he had to the story and his love for the characters is strongly reflected in every aspect of the film."
About The Production: Rebuilding Life After War
Although the film centers on a deeply personal story, the director believed that the backdrop and settings should seem appropriately epic with a grand, sweeping feel. "I'm a huge fan of David Lean," Kent says. "What he captures so brilliantly is the coming together of the intimate and the epic, particularly in Doctor Zhivago, Brief Encounter, and Lawrence of Arabia. Those films were touchstones for me because they have scale, but they are also deeply emotional films. More generally, that's the intensity in English filmmaking that inspires me."
The Aftermath was filmed in just eight weeks on location in Germany and in the Czech Republic. Together, James Kent and director of photography Franz Lustig sought to avoid period film tropes to create a breathtaking, hand-crafted film that benefitted from a contemporary, modern look. "I wanted a cinematographer who was naturalistic and unafraid of the shadows and natural daylight," says the director. "I didn't want the film to be chocolate box or an obviously period setting. I wanted to bring the past more into the present and make the experience of 1945 feel like yesterday."
Along those lines, when it came to the locations and sets, Kent had one demand"that the film accurately reflect how Hamburg looked immediately after the war. "The production design on a film like this is absolutely critical because you're trying to get a sense of the scale of the devastation," says the director. "The British dropped more bombs on Hamburg over three days than London received in the entire Second World War, so it looked like Hiroshima. We had to get that scale because you can't really understand Rachael's resurrection from the ashes of her grief unless you understand the scale of horror that she's thrown into."
Production designer Sonja Klaus was tasked with recreating the landscape of destruction. Klaus and her team set about studying vast amounts of reference material including film footage and archival photographs to determine how best to authentically depict the bombed-out buildings and the debris they left behind. Her goal was to fashion a believable portrait of life among the ruins.
"We wanted to show where people lived and show how they survived in the rubble," Klaus explains. "We had reference photographs that showed the sheer scale of the rubble and how people continued to live in their homes despite the devastation as they had nowhere to go. People continued to cook and wash and emerged looking as immaculate as they could to go to work."
Made somewhat more difficult by unrelenting bitterly cold temperatures, the Czech Republic shoot centered on two primary locations in Prague"a deserted sugar factory and a street that had been completely gutted prior to the production's arrival. Klaus's team brought in tons of rubble for the factory location and transformed the vacant shops along the existing thoroughfare into such local businesses as an optician's office and a department store, adding pavement, cobblestones, and lamp posts styled to match the period.
The Villa Lubert
The most important of any of the film's locations, however, was Villa Lubert, the immaculate residence where the bulk of the story unfolds. Kent didn't want the property to be overly ostentatious, but he knew the estate had to be glamorous enough to intimidate Rachael. In the end, the exterior of the house was found outside Prague, with the interior filmed in a large dwelling outside Hamburg in Northern Germany. "The size of the house was important to demonstrate their wealth, but also for practical purposes "we could get a whole crew in there," says Klaus, who made sure the décor reflected Lubert's appreciation for the modern art movement of the 1930s and '40s. "We were lucky that we could change the interior of the house to suit our needs."
Offers Kent: "The house had to feel authentic. We know this was a real experience because Rhidian Brook's grandfather went through it, so you have to be true to that while also bringing the audience into a story. We were very lucky because a lot of the houses in Hamburg are quite modernised"it is one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. But this was the perfect house. We were able to change entire rooms around to suit the script. A dressing room was turned into a bathroom, for example, and even had room for a camera trap."
"The house really illustrates the characters," adds Knightley. "It is very much Lubert's house"it's a house that Rachael doesn't understand. It's meant to frighten Rachael because she knows nothing about any of the things in it. There were lots of patterns everywhere, and they really added texture to the background. The attention to detail was really amazing."
"She's a philistine," says Skarsgård. "She doesn't appreciate art. Stephen was very inspired by the Bauhaus movement"he loves art, he loves music, and his home is filled with beautiful pieces, a Mies van der Rohe chair, and this woman doesn't appreciate it at all."
Costume designer Bojana Nikitovic and hair and make-up designer Barbara Kreuzer, too, had clear and precise briefs from Kent: simplicity was best. "As a former documentary-maker, I didn't want to over glamorize this world," says the director. "It would be quite easy to make Freda look like a rather beautiful teenage girl, and Rachael a far too made-up version of a middle-class English housewife. Keira was very keen on that, too"she wanted to feel real, bereaved and accessible to an audience."
Still, the face she shows to the outside world is one of prim composure, an attitude very much reflected in her wardrobe. Nikitovic selected fabrics in mustards and golds, and she chose textiles that were classic but also helped differentiate Knightley on screen. "Rachael's a very well dressed woman," Knightley says. "Bojana created a very chic wardrobe for her character, a slightly reserved look. It's all about very clean lines, very well fitted and quite simple, but very well made."
"I think that every costume designer would love to dress Keira," Nikitovic adds. "She's so talented and easy to communicate with."
Rachael does have at least one striking, glamorous piece in her wardrobe. The stunning formal evening gown she wears to the officer's ball near the end of the film"where Lewis finally learns the truth about the nature of his wife's relationship with Lubert"was one of the central challenges for Nikitovic. The garment not only had to be visually arresting, but its design also needed to outwardly convey certain changes in Rachael's state of mind. "That dress that she's wearing, it's almost something that is not covering anything," says Nikitovic. "Like finally, she's open. She's showing herself to her husband, to everyone. She feels free to express herself."
Lewis never quite finds the same sense of liberation or abandon. Although he does eventually come to look differently at his marriage and the upheaval he and Rachael have experienced, his outward appearance is largely unchanged. Even at his most casual, he remains every inch the British officer. "He feels so good in the uniform that, whenever we see him at home, he's still wearing it, but without the jacket, without the tie, sleeves rolled up," Nikitovic says. "It looks like his second skin."
Meanwhile, Lubert has been stripped of the smart suits he would normally wear and instead dons the simple garments of the working class. "He is doing what he has to do to survive in this period," Nikitovic says, adding her praise for Skarsgård. "Alexander was wonderful because he really thinks about the costume, all the details that are important for a character. He lost some weight so that his body could become more like the body of someone from 1945. Because now we are used to very well built bodies, but it was not the case of the period."
This careful attention to detail was key to making the film feel authentic not just to the postwar setting but also to the experiences of those who lived through these extraordinary circumstances. "I want to tell meaningful stories," says Kent. "I think the Second World War and the German experience is a place which still resonates today. We live at a time when we have a refugee crisis on our hands, our politics are shifting and we have a crisis of international understanding across the Western world. We have a responsibility to the future, just as the generation had in 1945, and their challenge was much larger than ours, and they rose to it."
Release Date: April 18th, 2019