Keira Knightley on her new war drama: 'I’d never looked at the aftermath of a conflict before and I thought that was a really interesting take on it'

Keira Knightley in The Aftermath. (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Keira Knightley in The Aftermath. (Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Cape Town - Keira Knightley leads a stellar cast in James Kent’s moving love story The Aftermath.

Keira takes on the role of Rachael Morgan who arrives in Hamburg to be reunited with her husband, Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke), a British army officer serving with the occupying Allied forces who controlled Germany immediately after the end of the Second World War. 

Morgan has requisitioned a grand house where he will stay with Rachael – common practice in the months after the conflict ended – but has allowed the German owner, Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) and his daughter to remain in the property.

At first, Rachael is resentful at the prospect of living with the enemy as she tries to rebuild her fractured relationship with her husband, as they both struggle to come to terms with the death of their child. 

But she discovers that Lubert, too, is grieving the loss of his wife who died during the intense Allied bombing of Hamburg in 1943 when a large section of the city was obliterated in a firestorm that killed more than 40 000 people.

"Rachael is somebody who has been utterly shattered by grief," says Keira. "Her emotional interior life is escaping through every single pore in her body and she comes to see her husband amidst the destruction of this German city amongst these people who she very much still sees as the enemy and meeting her husband who she hasn’t seen for years, properly, and they are now two different people. 

"So, Rachael is shattered – she is not a whole person at the time you meet her she is being held together by very taut skin."

With her husband increasingly emotionally and physically absent, Rachael slowly begins a relationship with Lubert that threatens her marriage. 

"For me personally – and this isn’t the way that everybody sees it – I sort of saw the affair with Lubert as having two parts to it. In some ways Rachael recognises Lubert’s own tragedy and his own grief and the fact that because it’s not shared there’s an understanding.

"But the distance is enough that it doesn’t affect Lubert to be able to be there emotionally for Rachael in a way that Lewis absolutely cannot be because it’s shared grief for them. 

"So, I think there’s that. And also, an explosion has to happen between Rachael and Lewis for them to be able to get back together because something has to bring it to a head and I think in a way we do know that with relationships – you are aware when there has to be a bomb that has to go off to get through something."

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"I’m not saying that always has to be infidelity, but I should imagine that sometimes it is.

"It’s this moment when there can be something other than the living experience of trauma and they can just have this amazing thing, it’s like a holiday romance. It’s being alive and suddenly feeling and not having to re-live all of that grief but being two solo entities that have nothing to do with each other’s past. 

"She must have suddenly felt like she could breathe again and was alive again."

Keira was immediately drawn to the screenplay, which is based on an original story by Rhidian Brook who also wrote a novel, The Aftermath, and its themes of love and loss.

"I think it was the idea of rebuilding and how that is possible after tremendous tragedy, both in terms of the emotional storyline with Rachael and then the physical rebuilding of cities after they have been destroyed. 

"I felt like the 1940s and the Second World War was a period that I’ve done in quite a few films but I’d never looked at the aftermath of a conflict before and I thought that was a really interesting take on it."


The production filmed interior scenes at the Lubert house at a 19th century property on the outskirts of Hamburg. The exterior scenes, showing a devastated post war Hamburg, were filmed in Prague in freezing, snowy conditions. 

"We got to Prague and it was the coldest winter since 1937 and it was about minus 16 most of the time we were filming – it was absolutely freezing and there was this blanket of snow the entire time we were there. 

"It almost looked fake. I’ve never seen that amount of snow before and it really was quite extraordinary so we were very lucky and very cold at the same time," she laughs. "And (production designer) Sonja (Klaus) did a wonderful job of recreating the devastation of Hamburg which looked incredibly real."

She had worked with Clarke on Everest – he played a mountaineer who died on the mountain and Keira was his wife - and was delighted to team up with the Australian actor once again. 

"I absolutely love working with Jason. I love it. He is a phenomenal actor and I really like him as a bloke. We have a lot of fun, which is funny because on Everest I was sobbing the entire time and on this one we’re playing a couple wrenched apart by grief. 

"But honestly, this whole job was one of the loveliest, if not the loveliest job I’ve been on and that was hugely to do with James Kent who I think is the nicest man I’ve ever met. 

"Honestly I can’t tell you how lovely this group of people are. I get a huge kick out of working with Jason. I learn a lot from him and I so enjoying playing around with him, he’s great. 

"And Alexander is just another lovely, lovely man. He is a wonderful actor and a complete sweetheart. This film felt like a real privilege because it’s very rare that you can say, hand on heart, that everybody was spectacularly lovely. It was a privilege working with all of them."