Maven's Nest

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There’s little heat in the Winter of 1946 in Hamburg

Directed by James Kent
Produced by Jack Arbuthnott & Malte Grunert
Written by Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse, and Rhidian Brook, based on the novel by: Rhidian Brook
Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Germany/UK. 109 mins. Rated R
With Keira Knightley, Alexander Skarsgård, Jason Clarke, Flora Thiemann, Jannik Schümann, Martin Compston, Kate Phillips, and Fionn O’Shea

By Nora Lee Mandel

The Aftermath brings together three enormously attractive leading stars who usually tempt me to see them on a big or small screen. But the only reason to consider seeing their surprisingly unappealing romantic triangle is the period context that hasn’t been seen in films.

The Allies’ destruction of Berlin during World War II was in features almost immediately, such as in Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948). George Roy Hill’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) brought Kurt Vonnegut’s witnessing of the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden to American audiences. Director James Kent fills the screen with archival, then effective CGI footage, and then production design, of what happened to Hamburg over a week in July 1943: the firestorm U.S. and British military called “Operation Gomorrah” that killed 42,600 civilians, wounding 37,000, and destroying 6,200 acres.

The rubble and the homeless, hungry population are under British supervision in September 1946, when the film opens. As an American announces in Rhidian Brook’s novel and in his co-written script about how the Allies divided western Germany: “The French get the wine, we get the view and you guys get the ruins.” Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) is on a train with compartment-mates who are reading out the firm and patronizing instructions from the British Control Commission against fraternization with the German population.

Like Brook’s grandparents, whose experience inspired his writing, Rachael and her husband Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) have been assigned a grand house, with servants, in an aristocratic-looking, untouched residential neighborhood along the Elbe River. But quite unlike the other British staff living in requisitioned properties, Lewis invites their home’s owners, architect Stephan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his teenage daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann), to remain by living in the attic.

Rachael is skittish; she retains antagonism to the former enemy whose bombs killed her young son back in England. The Luberts are similarly troubled, not just by the new layout, but because their wife and mother died in the Allied bombing. Well-meaning Lewis is uncomfortable because he’s barely spent time with his aloof wife while he was rising up the ranks to hero during the war; he only briefly took leave for their son’s funeral, and takes little time off now, to her continuing resentment. Unsuspensefully, the bereaved mother and the widower inevitably fall into each other’s comforting arms.

The millions killed in the war are irrelevant to these oblivious two harboring only their personal griefs. Jews, or even the Holocaust, are only glancingly acknowledged when Lewis’s uncouth colleague in the Intelligence Branch, Major Keith Burnam (Martin Compston), throws small photographs of piles of skeletal bodies to those Germans he’s interrogating for de-Nazification certification, including Herr Lubert. Did the Brits not follow the American pattern of using Jewish soldiers fluent in Yiddish to help with translations in these interactions?

Rebellious Freda still looks like a loyal “Deutscher Mädel” with her long, blondish braids, and acts like it when she skips school to join the desperate women and feral children cleaning up rubble in exchange for necessities from the British authorities. She falls for the charismatic young Albert (Jannik Schümann) who is training a gang of Nazi youth in the catacombs to be guerrilla fighters. These resistance “Wehrwolf” saboteurs and snipers have not been seen seriously much in films, though the “88” tattoo has gained attention today for its current white supremacist popularity. Her information about the British administrator who took over her home makes her quite attractive to him, and even without the more extended focus on these lost youth in the book, their relationship has the sense of danger missing elsewhere in the film.

As the adult couples don’t generate any heat during that winter in Hamburg, the audience can’t help but notice all kinds of things that don’t really add up. Rachael’s suspicion that a blank space on the wall probably had a required Hitler portrait is just an argument promoting sexual tension in the film, but in the book is more sensitively solved with the revelation of Frau Lubert’s portrait now removed to the attic. Stephan insists that his house was in the unapproved Modern style with so-called “Degenerate Art” – but the house only has one such item, a Mies van der Rohe chair. He explains that this large house is due to his late wife’s wealth, and that it was her shipbuilding family who were Nazis, not him. Both in the book and film, I find it not credible that he could get clients from their class without being a party member himself.

Too bad the film doesn’t make as clear as the book that Lewis is doing worthy work than just this fraternization, even as he has to carry out the Allies’ short-term vengeful policy of German de-industrialization. As Rachael arrived with very little luggage, it was curious how she could be dressed more and more beautifully, culminating in a stunning evening gown (kudos to costume designer Bojana Nikitovic). Rachael is seen briefly putting together an elegant black dress on a sewing machine, but where did she get such fine fabric? While Stephan speaks German to his daughter and household staff, how is that in both the film and the book he speaks English flawlessly? With the change in the ending from the book, Freda’s acquiescence to her father’s affair makes no sense.

For a more exciting affair between ostensible enemies around this period, see how David Leveaux adapted The Exception (2017). Though I got no comparable emotional satisfaction from The Aftermath, I did learn more about Hamburg in 1946 than I knew before. Almost like: “It doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

March 15, 2019

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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