Keira Knightley’s ‘The Aftermath’ holds lessons for Europe’s angry times

Post-war reconciliation in Europe plays a central theme in 'The Aftermath'. On its release in cinemas, Keira Knightley tells Adrian Lobb we should be thinking about what exactly we want to smash apart, because we need to know what it will look like afterwards...

Set in immediate post-war Hamburg as Europe attempts to come together after six years of war, The Aftermath could not be more timely. Keira Knightley shines as Rachael Morgan, who arrives in Germany understandably full of hatred and distrust, but is forced to confront her preconceptions after she and her army officer husband (Jason Clarke) requisition the house of a thoughtful German architect and widower (Alexander Skarsgård).

It’s a film about reconciliation after personal, political and actual conflict – something that sounds eerily prescient.

The Big Issue: We see the Second World War a lot in film but it is always the fighting, never the reconciliation or…

Keira Knightley: The aftermath? Exactly. That is what drew me to the role. I have done a number of films and I have certainly seen many films set in World War Two. I thought it was extraordinary that I have never seen anything directly in this period, and actually, I had never thought about it. That was even more shocking. You think of the catastrophe of that war, you think of the good versus evil, you think of this continent that was utterly destroyed – and I have never gone, ‘How the fuck did they build it back up again?’

The film shows the start of Europe as we have known it all our lives.

There were very few people who weren’t touched by tremendous loss. I can’t imagine you would have felt particularly victorious. And from the German point of view, in the house you see the German art, the Bauhaus chair, you hear the music – Germany was one of the cultural centres of the world. And you had a moment when a regime utterly annihilated everything that country had been. It’s a wake-up call. It can happen very easily if you allow it.

The film feels timely in many ways.

It does feel quite timely! What must it have taken, on a personal and a political level, to build something that has actually given us over 70 years of peace? Obviously there is the Cold War in there, so it is not quite as simple as that, but what they built afterwards was the longest period of peace that Europe has ever known.

It is easy to demonise somebody when you don’t understand what they are saying,

Do you think the film also speaks to how hard it is to live with hate and suspicion when faced with a real person?

It is much easier to demonise somebody when they are just “the Other”. And it is easy to demonise somebody when you don’t understand what they are saying. Suddenly looking at your enemy, hearing them speak your language, and seeing them as a human being must be something you can’t ignore.

Who needs to see this film – to hear that message that we have more in common?

Obviously, everyone! But I think people have to be careful of their rhetoric and we should be thinking of the consequences of our actions. Particularly right now. We should be thinking about what we want to smash apart – because we need to be thinking about exactly what we want it to look like afterwards.

Are you talking about Europe and Brexit?

I’m talking about everything, really. Everything in general. [laughs] What is the plan afterwards? Because what they managed to do after the Second World War is that they understood the lessons from the First World War, and how badly that Treaty of Versailles treated Germany. That should have been the war to end all wars and yet, 20 years later, you had another catastrophic war. So they made sure the rebuilding of Europe was different from the first time. So what is the plan?

If I knew that, if anyone knew that… but we should all be thinking about that, shouldn’t we? We should be going: this is what has been put in place to keep this peace, so what is the plan when it goes? Stories always reflect the time you are in – and how you perceive a certain point in time says a lot about the age that you are in.

Your character is so full of hate at the beginning. Was it important to get into that headspace, to really feel it?

What, was I really horrible to Alexander and every German member of the crew?! No, but it was a very powerful thing to realise. We can all be susceptible to fear and we are all slaves to our emotions. Her child was killed in a bombing raid. A bomb is faceless. Therefore you blame every single person you see. So although it is vile, it is also completely understandable. Again, the redemptive quality is that she does suddenly have to think of that enemy as a human being who has also experienced loss, and is not just this demon.

Coming out of the cinema, it struck me that just 15 years later The Beatles were going to walk into Hamburg

Yeah! What must it have been like then? These leather-clad young people arrive. It is absolutely extraordinary. Where was it that they played all the concerts, it was one of the bunkers, wasn’t it, where everyone would go mad? And again, that generation was extraordinary, wasn’t it? Maybe that is what has to happen.

Some kind of youth-led revolution?

Yeah. Hi guys! I think they are doing quite well at the moment, aren’t they?

Where does this role fit in with what you are looking for at the moment?

I am always looking for complex characters and stories that make me question things. She is not always likeable. And I am always interested in female rage. We see a lot of male rage but female rage is a taboo and treated differently – so I am interested in looking at it. More angry women coming up!

We are celebrating World Book Day this week – is there a book that changed your life?

I am reading Earthly Powers at the moment, which is the Anthony Burgess book. And I am completely loving it. But a book that has changed my life? The Passion by Jeanette Winterson. I had a real Jeanette Winterson obsession so I have read every single one of her books. But The Passion is one I could read again and again and again. It is that magical realism, the world that she creates, I just love it.

The Aftermath is in cinemas now

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