© Twentieth Century Fox of Germany GmbH

Niemandsland (The Aftermath)
U.K./Germany/U.S.A. 2019

Opening 11 Apr 2019

Directed by: James Kent
Writing credits: Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, Rhidian Brook
Principal actors: Keira Knightley, Jason Clarke, Alexander Skarsgård, Flora Thiemann, Anna Katharina Schimrigk

Hamburg, in fall 1946: The Allies have split Germany and the city on the Alster is under British control.

Rachel (Keira Knightley) is traveling to Germany to reunite with her husband, Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), who has been living in Hamburg already. While Lewis is friendly to the Germans and tries to treat them with respect, Rachel does not and generalizes them all as the people that brought war to her life.

When a big mansion is seized for the Colonel and his wife to live in, Rachel is shocked to find out that her husband offered the actual owner, Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), who was supposed to relocate, to stay in the house and live in the attic with his teenage daughter (Flora Thiemann).

Dedicated to his work, Lewis leaves his wife alone in the big mansion with the German staff and the original inhabitants; enough for Rachel’s loneliness and grief for her son, who had died in a German air raid years before, to fill her with immense sadness and the longing for her husband, or someone to love and dream with again.

Based on the brilliant novel by Rhidian Brook, the movie unfortunately does not reach its’ full potential provided by the original book, with Brook’s colorful descriptions that make post-war Germany come to life.

The characters seem to be not fully developed in the film, and many situations seem too arbitrary and surprising. Stefan Lubert seems a mystery. While we wonder what his role during the Nazi-time really was, he seems unapproachable, and I would have expected him to turn out to be a full-blown Nazi up until the end, without being the least bit surprised.

Rachel’s motif to despise the Germans and her reluctance to feel comfortable in Hamburg are explained too late in the movie, when the feeling of her being an ice queen and unfair snob has already manifested itself in the audience. It is difficult to have sympathy with her and all her behavior; after she warms up it still seems awkward. Even in the end, when we feel we should actually root for her personal happy end, we don’t really feel like she deserved any of the available outcomes.

The film shows “Trümmerfrauen” - Women digging through the rubble, trying to clear up the devastation and ruin that the war has left behind, and the attempt of the people to live a normal life while bodies are still being found amongst them. Especially if you know the beautiful city on the Alster, you will be sucked into the devastating visuals of bombed Hamburg and the reality that Germans experienced, not only in Hamburg, but in Dresden, Nuremberg, Berlin and other cities.

In the end, all that remains when leaving the theater is the glimpse of post-war Germany you get from James Kent’s film that touched me the deepest. The actual plot, on the other hand, was just a faint sense lingering, but fleeting, at the next traffic light already. (Karen Eve Malinowski O’Shaughnessy)

Second Opinion

After World War II ended in 1945, Germany was divided into four sections: British, French, American, and Russian. Hamburg, the site of this film, was in the British section. When the film opens, British Army Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke) is in Hamburg, preparing for the arrival of his wife Rachel (Keira Knightley) who is on the train with many other British wives, all determined to do their best living in “enemy” territory. Lewis and Rachel will stay in a beautiful villa near the Elbchaussee overlooking the Elbe River. Many of the British stayed in such houses, as this area was not devastated into terrible ruins like much of Hamburg. “There were more bombs on Hamburg in July 1943 than during the whole war in London.” This house has been confiscated from the German owner Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård). The procedure was to requisition the houses, forcing the German owners to move out into an uncertain future. No matter. They lost the war. Lewis, however, does not think this way. After exploring the vastness of this beautiful villa, he suggests that Stephen and his teenaged daughter Freda (Flora Thiemann) stay. They could move into the attic quarters and the Morgans would take over the luxurious first and second floors. Soon we learn that the Morgans lost their son Michael in a bombing attack on London, while Stephan lost his wife Claudia in Hamburg. Rachel is sensitive, still mourning the loss of her son and blaming her husband for lack of support during this difficult time. Lewis is often away on business. Stephan enjoys listening to Rachel play the piano, much like Claudia did. Imagine the obvious result in this situation.

Director James Kent has created your usual triangle love story in unusual circumstances: poverty-stricken victims digging through the city’s devastation, flare-ups of past embitterment, feral children huddled in basements, cigarettes as currency. However, the circumstances between Stephan and Rachel are not unusual: lonely woman, absent husband, good-looking single man. Filmed in Prague, the Czech Republic, Brandenburg, and, supposedly, in Hamburg, there is never any real feeling of being in Hamburg except for a 30-second glimpse of the Michel Church in the background. Perhaps you think you recognize the train station, the restaurant, a street, or even the villa, but are they really in Hamburg? (Actually the train station is in Brandenburg)

Although the film is a window to an important era of history and Keira Knightly is perfect for the role of Rachel, i.e., very thin figure, beautifully smooth skin, always looking into the distance while mulling over something, you definitely must read the original book The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook. He takes us to Hamburg: Dammtor Train Station, Atlantic Hotel, Hammerbrook, Jungfernstieg, the Alster, Jenisch Park, even Pinneberg. Each character is developed fully. We learn Rachel’s thoughts and Lewis’ tendency to value the Germans. There is a son Edmond, alive and well; Freda and her boyfriend Berti are still fighting WWII under the motto “You are also murderers”; the house servants must adjust to a new lady of the house; Stephan speaks perfect English while dreaming of furthering his career as an architect, but first he must receive his Persilschein (confirmation that he had no Nazi background). See the film for the visual experience and the excellent actors. Read the book for the enlightening details. The British were warned to “be careful because they aren’t like us” and “German women seek relationships after having lost their men.” Now I would love to talk to my elderly German neighbors about their experiences, especially 94-year-old Frau McK., who, in 1946, married a British consul in the new British consulate, located at that time on Jungfernstieg. (Becky Tan)

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