You don’t turn off trauma like you turn off a light. Old wounds leave scars. Losses from long ago can trigger fresh tears. And wars don’t neatly end when an armistice is signed. For some, the battles go on.
It’s the waning weeks of 1945. Hitler’s been dead for months now, and the British army is firmly in control of Hamburg, Germany. World War II, at least in Europe, is over. Still, the digging goes on. Bricks and rubble fill the streets. Skeletal buildings tower and teeter. Germans dig through the dust, slowly recovering what they can¬—a family heirloom here, a family member there. And all the while, they realize that the very dust they sift through could be the ashes of friends, neighbors, family.
Col. Lewis Morgan rules over this ruined city, doing his best to bring a little humanity to this inhuman reclamation. The people are hungry and destitute—grieving over all they’ve lost and angry at how little relief seems on the horizon. A few long for the days when Germany ruled Europe like a Teutonic titan. They brand the numbers “88” on their arms¬—a stand-in for the eighth letter of the alphabet: “HH.” Heil Hitler.
Rachael Morgan, Lewis’ wife, steps into this land of misery and resentment. She feels that finally, after Lewis’ long service, they have a chance to be together—to eat in Hamburg’s finest restaurants (as the people of Hamburg cook what scraps they have in the streets) and throw parties as part of the city’s new, temporary, ruling class. They’ve even been given use of a fine, old house—a mansion that once belonged to an architect.
Rachael and Lewis lost their only son to the war. The Germans took more from her than could be imagined. Still, she hopes that this corner of Germany might offer a new start, a chance for the couple to salve old wounds. To move past the grief they’ve never fully relinquished.
That architect, Stephen Lubert, must also move past his own grief—his wife died in the British bombing raids¬¬—even as he and his teenage daughter, Freda, must move out of their home. After all, it’s not theirs anymore: It’s part of the British spoils of war. They must live in the camps the British have set aside for the Germans as they prepare for a new, very different, life.
But Lewis knows, better than anyone, how bad those camps can be. And gently, he asks his wife whether he can let them stay.
“I’m not comfortable with it,” she says.
“With them,” Lewis amends. “Uncomfortable with them because they’re Germans.”
Rachael relents: They can stay—if they keep to themselves and live out of sight. The palatial halls aren’t theirs anymore: They can live in the attic.
But some contact can’t be avoided. Sometimes Freda wanders down to her old room. Sometimes Stephen straightens the knickknacks in the home’s great hall. And sometimes, he passes Rachael on the stairway, training his eyes on her for a moment too long.
Rachael notices and wonders: Does he hate them? Hate her? Did he have fond feelings for the Fueher? Could he still? Or is there something else lurking behind that gaze?
Whatever it is, whatever it means, it makes Rachael evermore uncomfortable.
Let’s start with Lewis—a chap so decent that even Rachael says he might be “stifled under the weight” of that decency. He sincerely wants to help the people of Hamburg get back on their feet. He frets about their lack of food and infrastructure. And he does his best to rein in the worst impulses of his fellow British officers. When Germans riot around his headquarters—and begin rocking the car he’s riding in back and forth, breaking its windows—Lewis keeps shouting for the British soldiers to keep their cool. “No firing!” he says. “No firing!” It’s not the only time he stays either his own or someone else’s hand. Even when he’d be fully justified in pulling a trigger, Lewis opts for cool-headed mercy.
Lewis also loves his wife dearly and fiercely, even if grief and circumstances make it difficult for him to show it. “You were always the best part of me,” he tells Rachael. “You always will be.” Privately, Lewis admits that he’s done things he’s ashamed of. What restrains him now? Often, it’s the thought of what his wife thinks of him.
Rachael loves Lewis, too, though she feels the constant tension of how strained their relationship has become. We see some surprising moments of tenderness from her, especially toward Stephen’s daughter, Freda. Rachael sees in the teen a reflection of the child she lost—a child Rachael still mourns. And at times, it seems that both she and Freda want Rachael to fill the gaping hole left by Freda’s own dead mother.
And that, at its core, is what The Aftermath is about: not love or passion or infidelity (which we’ll get to soon), but grief, and how that grief can twist us. The sins we see here¬—and they are significant—emerge from places of deep pain. And while that doesn’t excuse them, it makes them perhaps more understandable.
We hear a few allusions to Bible verses and phrases, such as, “Suffer the little children.” Part of the film takes place during the Christmas season, and we see Christmas trees and hear snippets of traditional carols.
When Lewis is called away to handle a violent situation elsewhere, telling Rachael he’ll be gone for a few days or weeks, she implores him to stay.
“I’m asking you, I’m begging you,” she says. “Please don’t go.”
Rachael knows that if he leaves, the temptation living in the attic will be too strong to resist. She and Stephen have already had sex—a hurried, grasping tryst. But when Lewis leaves, the sexual dalliance becomes a full-blown affair.
We see one steamy sex scene. Clothes are removed. Mostly nude bodies are visible, including breast nudity. They have a follow-up interlude in bed in a small cabin that Stephen owns.
They kiss elsewhere, too. In fact, Stephen gets the whole infidelity ball going with an unasked for, and in the moment, unrequited kiss—an “excuse,” he tells her, to force her hand and force himself and Freda out of the house. He also hangs a picture of a nude woman (where Rachael assumes a picture of Hitler used to hang), and Rachael notices other bits of erotic art about the house, too.
Before Rachael’s and Stephen’s affair hits full swing, Rachael tries to rekindle the romance with her husband. She wears a slinky dress, and Lewis pulls her close and speculates how good she’d look out of it. They realize they have an hour before their dinner party guests arrive, and Rachael removes said dress (sitting on the bed in provocative black lingerie) … but Lewis gets a call that pulls him away from any potential lovemaking.
Lewis seems emotionally distant for much of the movie. He leaves their bed before she wakes up. When he sees her weeping in a bath (where we see her bare shoulders), he walks away before she notices he’s there.
[Spoiler Warning] This love triangle ultimately requires a decision of Rachael: to stay with her husband or run off with her lover. And when Lewis learns of the affair, he also must decide whether to forgive or not. Both characters ultimately choose the healthier, more honorable option: to stay and to forgive.
Freda has her own passionate attachment: She meets a young man with an “88” tattooed on his arm. The two kiss (and he strips off his shirt at one point), and it’s pretty clear she’d do anything for him—a girlish infatuation that has some pretty serious consequences.
The backdrop of the movie is, of course, World War II, a conflict that killed (we’re told) 40,000 people in Hamburg alone. One man reaches down and picks up a handful of dust and graphically describes the remains of the people who might be in it.
Five months after the end of the war, most of Hamburg’s residents are still digging through the rubble. When two bodies are uncovered—bloody, mummified skeletons embracing—a crass British soldier suggests they wanted one last roll in the hay.
A few people are shot: One man dies instantly from a bullet to the brain, and we see his bloody remains. Another expires as blood courses out his neck and he gasps his last. A person falls through ice on a lake and presumably drowns. A violent riot leads to at least two people being knocked down and injured: One man incurs a bloody gash to his forehead. A German man in British custody gets shoved around an interrogation room and threatened with a gun. Someone brandishes a gun.
We see several characters grieve the loss of loved ones and talk about how they died. The movie’s opening shot depicts a bomb run over Hamburg: It’s night, so all we see are blossoms of fire erupting on the blackened screen.
We hear one f-word. Also overheard: one use of “b–tard” and about four instances of the British profanity “bloody.” God’s name is misused three times, while Jesus’ name is abused twice.
Lewis smokes, and his cigarette case—which contains pictures of his wife and late son—becomes an important plot device. Other people smoke, too. A variety of drinks are served at restaurants, lounges and dinner parties. Lewis cautions Rachael to keep a certain British officer away from the liquor cabinet: That same officer gets into a confrontation with Stephen, and it’s possible that the clash was precipitated by too much alcohol.
One underlying current in The Aftermath is the inherent friction between Hamburg’s German citizens and its British occupiers. Many Germans naturally resent their unwanted guests, who eat in the best restaurants and commandeer German property even as the city’s residents go hungry.
The British, meanwhile, are perpetually wary of their “hosts.” “They’re not like us,” one says. Some suspect most Germans of being Nazis or Nazi sympathizers—and indeed, the city is home to some who would characterize Hitler’s reign as the country’s best days. That tension shows up both overtly and covertly, with real grievances and unfair prejudice present on both sides.
Freda steals something of value from Lewis and Rachael.
The Aftermath may not be a particularly memorable title, but it is especially fitting. So many people are recovering from titanic, often tragic, losses: a son, a wife, a relationship, a war, a city. Everyone’s picking up pieces here, even if they’re not literally sifting through rubble.
The movie shows us how tragedy twists and bends and sometimes breaks us—and how difficult it can be to move on. Picking up the pieces isn’t easy, especially when those pieces are our own.
But while I valued the film’s underlying message, it communicated that message in troubling ways. In fact, I think the sexual scenes here undercut the film’s real meaning—turning the story into more of a tawdry love triangle, which distracts viewers from its powerful ruminations on loss and grief. The sex and skin we see is graphic and inescapable, which makes this film difficult to recommend and, for many viewers, unwise to see.
Because, as the broken characters in The Aftermath well know, what’s seen cannot be unseen, what’s done cannot be undone.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.