By Edward Douglas
Director James Kent spent almost thirty years directing television and TV documentaries before venturing into the film world with 2014’s “Testament of Youth.” Now, he has a new film called “The Aftermath,” based on Rhidian Brook’s novel set just as World War II is coming to an end.
Keira Knightley plays Rachel Morgan, a British woman who has moved to Hamburg, Germany with her husband Lewis, a British officer who is cleaning up loose ends including an underground Nazi insurrection. They move into a gorgeous mansion owned by Alexander Skarsgard’s Stephan Lubert, a German doctor who is recovering from the death of his wife in the British bombing. Rachel and Lewis have had their own loss, as their son was killed in the British bombings, but Lewis allows Stephan and his teen daughter to move upstairs rather than kicking them out. As Lewis tries to quell the German revolt against the British occupation, Rachel tries to deal with her loss by bonding with Stephan and his daughter. It’s another great historic drama from Kent that includes a mix of timely politics amidst the romance and grief.
Next Best Picture spoke with Kent about the film over the phone from the film’s London junket a few weeks back, and we got a nice history lesson in the bargain.
I was reading that Rhidian first pitched this idea to Ridley Scott and then went off and wrote the book, so when and how did you get involved?
So there was a screenplay. Obviously, it wasn’t complete. We did lots of work once I got involved, but I read the screenplay, and I was just so profoundly moved by this story of compassion and forgiveness at the time of great international stress and devastation and cruelty. I just felt what an amazing story for our age where we’re being stretched, and we’re being challenged at the moment. To find that individuals had their own sense of compassion can make a difference to the world.
Did you actually read the novel?
Yes, I love the novel, I did. I read the novel, which is always a great help, but sometimes you also have to put the novel away and just realize that the film has to survive like an orphan. It has to survive out in the ocean water on its own rights, so I love the novel very much. I loved its span and its tale of female loneliness and isolation in her own world, which Rachel is, having lost her child and having had a husband who’s been away for so many years. So for me, it touched me, because female members who are very close to me in my family have gone through similar experiences of loneliness and having to fend for themselves, frankly.
I mentioned to you that I went back with my father to his hometown of Hamburg to see his childhood home, which had been rebuilt after the bombing, but that was part of a program by the city to bring back former Jews that lived there.
That’s really interesting, because I’m Jewish as well, and actually, it was very interesting learning about the history of Hamburg, which – I’m sure you’ll know this – wasn’t as Nazified as the South, Bavaria, and those areas, which were the birthplace of Naziism. Hamburg was always a little unsure about the Nazi creed, and it was very very Anglophiled. The connections between Great Britain and the trade merchants of Hamburg, a very wealthy port, were very strong, so one of the things the British bombers were told to do was to try to avoid bombing the wealthy areas of Hamburg, because all those wealthy industrialists knew high-ranking British politicians, and there was a complicity agreement to try to avoid damaging those properties.
Was Hamburg a target due to those ports?
Yes, it was. It had a big submarine base, which obviously operated in the North Sea between Sweden, Britain, Hamburg, and it also had big factories making armaments, so it was the second largest city in the Reich after Berlin.
Was Rhidian’s book told from Rachel’s point of view pretty much?
Very much. The book is very much Rachel Morgan’s point of view and her arrival in Germany and her struggle to deal with the loss of her child and the fact that the British husband allows a German to stay in the house and move upstairs. That’s very much from her point-of-view.
And that was based on something that happened with his own family or something similar?
It was. It is inspired in a way by a true story, because Rhidian’s own grandfather was a colonel in Hamburg and also took charge of a German house and allowed the German family, very unusually, to stay in the house. Rhidian’s grandmother, so the wife of this British officer, was very against that idea and also had to come to terms with a German family living in a house. They literally shared it, and there were children on both sides. It was the children, interestingly, who got to know each other first and the adults followed after that.
That’s how it usually happens.
Yeah, children are an example to us all.
How long did it take for you to find Keira to play Rachel, as that was probably the most important role to cast? How did you put the cast together?
So Keira was the first on board, if you like. She loved the script. I remember her first words were that this was such a sensational story. Also, Keira had just become a mother, so at various levels, it was touching her in a way. I mean, she’d speak better at this than I, but I could definitely tell that it was a touchstone for her in terms of her development as an actress. It’s a very quiet performance. It’s a very internal performance, and I love that. I love that about the book, and I love that about the way Keira interpreted Rachel for the film. Once Keira was on board, of course, Alex came on board next, and he’d bit into Stephan because he has that – although he’s a big man, there’s a composure to Alex, maybe being part Swedish, and he was able to gain a very internalized role. In fact, the least internalized was when Jason Clarke playing Lewis Morgan, the husband, because he’s more of a warrior, and he’s gone through the devastation, the fatigue of the Second World War. Each of them is shattered in their own ways. All of them have a kind of shellshock, post-traumatic stress disorder, from their experiences of the 2nd World War, which must have been extremely common. It’s through this coming together, the three of them actually, that they all learn to renew, to find forgiveness and compassion and to rebuild their lives.
Do you generally do a lot of rehearsing with the actors before filming? I know you come from a TV background and generally have less time for that sort of thing, so were you able to have more time while making this movie to do rehearsals?
Not really, because you have to get all three actors together at the same time, and they’re really sought-after actors so their schedules are… so we had time, funnily enough, just before Christmas, we had a bit of time then to read through the script together, to discuss and analyze it, and then I had time individually with one after the other, not together, but again, quietly in a hotel room or in my living room in London to just quietly go through the script. I probably spent the most time with Jason Clarke. He came to London for several days, and he met with military officers and had a meal in an officer’s mess, and he went riding. He just wanted to feel more military. So I spent quite a bit of time with Jason, and actually, in a way, I think Lewis Morgan is one of the hardest roles, because of that trauma that he witnessed over five years of conflict.
Being an American, we’re taught certain things in history class like the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, things like that, but when it comes to WWI and WWII, even though we were involved, we weren’t as affected. It’s not the same thing as being in England where hundreds of thousands of people and soldiers died with London being bombed as well. Did you learn about that stuff in school or from your family?
Oh, yeah, and of course being Jewish, I’m very alert to it. I made a big film in Auschwitz with orchestras and opera singers to mark the liberation of the camp of Auschwitz 60 years after that liberation. I’ve been very well aware of the Second World War, and it is taught. The second World War is both a burden and a triumph. It’s only a burden in a sense that we’ve got to move away from this era and look progressively forwards, but I think the British are obviously inextricably linked to the history of the Second World War and that trauma. Our grandparents went through it still, being that they were children at the time, so there are millions of people still living who experienced it.
You shot some of this in Germany?
Yes, we did a month in Prague and then we shot a month in Hamburg. All the interiors of the house, all those scenes inside the house and the attic, they were all shot in Hamburg in a big townhouse, a little out of Hamburg. All the big exteriors, the ruins, and the ball and the attack on the car, that was all done in Prague.
So you were able to find a house where you could film all the interiors or did you still have to build some sets?
Nope, we didn’t build any set. The entire house, it was a dream. I walked in the house – this is the perfect layout, because it’s got those big stairs, and it was all open plan on the ground floor. It had this space in the attic. Somehow, the production department managed to persuade the lady owner to convert that into an old-style attic. So there’s not a single set in the whole film.
Was the family still living there while you were filming or did you put them up somewhere nice?
No, no, we put them in a hotel. (laughs)
That would have been life imitating art if you kept them there.
Yeah, that would have been fun, wouldn’t it? It’s like they allow a whole film crew from Britain to inhabit their house. (laughs) Roll with us! The Germans allow the British in. But actually, you have to realize, Ed, that our crew was German. There were British heads of department, but most of the crew in Germany were German, so it was interesting for them to hear this story and witness it. That was an interesting journey for them.
I know a lot of Germans today feel bad about what happened even though many of them weren’t alive during World War II, but I’m glad that there’s a lot of effort for communication between both sides.
Oh, yeah. The irony is that the British and Germans are more aligned, if you like, than the British and Italians, because we’re North Europeans, and so we have a similar sense of humor. We live in a similar climate. We’re into football in a massive way, so there’s a lot that connects us, which obvious like with Brexit, Germany is probably the country that regrets it most, because they do see us as a fellow traveler. When we get together and shoot stuff, we get on incredibly well. There’s so much we don’t have to explain to each other because we just have shared culture influences.
I know you’ve been directing for some time, mostly doing docs and television, so what convinced you to switch over to filmmaking with “Testament of Youth”? Was that just too good a story to tell or something you really needed to tell as a movie? Where do you see the dividing line between the mediums?
I think the dividing line, I think it’s two things: First, when you make a film, it’s about time. You have more time, certainly in the editing, but you certainly have more time to get the film off the ground and really think through the script and develop the script. In a way, in film, you inhabit the script as a director. You’ve worked on it, you’ve gone through draft after draft, so there’s no race to get the film off the ground. In television, obviously, there are deadlines and the broadcaster needs it, so I would say that’s the first thing. And the second thing, I think is that television is very much a writer’s medium, as well as a director’s medium, whereas in film, it’s primarily the director’s medium. If you want to stretch yourself as an artist or as a director, film is the natural place to go, because it’s going to be your word is king, if you like, or queen, and that is great. If you’re looking for challenges in life, then you need to keep stretching yourself, and “Testament of Youth” and “The Aftermath” are both wonderful experiences where I felt fully, creatively alive.
I’m glad you mentioned about films being a director’s medium since you worked long enough in television that you could tell if it was very obvious when you go into film that there’s more on the director’s shoulders.
Yes, well, definitely. You are the font of the film, and you are the source of the film in many ways. By the time it’s gone through everything else… film is about having a voice, and television is about telling a great story normally, so you have to bring a voice to the film.
Was there anything you learned from your television background that you could bring to film that maybe a director who started in film may not have that experience?
I think the fact that you’re on set a lot in television means it’s not such an intimidating space. If you’re in film and only do film, you might only make a film every four or five years, and then you’d be on set every four or five years. Whereas if you’re doing television in between, you’re always going to be oiling those filming muscles and also working with assistant directors and making deadlines and just carving stories in the editing suite. I think if you don’t do television… of course there are great, great filmmakers who don’t do television … but what I mean is that television is a great way of keeping those muscles oiled.
Have you found yourself a team that you want to keep using as you make films?
Yes, definitely. You also find that you’re not available by the time your next project comes along, but I definitely would like to repeat the experience with the team of “The Aftermath.”
What’s “Seducing Ingrid Bergmann” about?
That’s about the love affair between Robert Cappa, the war photographer, and a Hollywood icon, Ingrid Bergmann, and they met very weirdly in 1945, the end of the second World War, and she was married. It was about an illicit affair she had, unbeknownst to her Swedish husband.
Sounds almost like a sequel to “The Aftermath” in some way…
I’m doing a triplicate – “Testament of Youth,” young girl in the first World War, “Aftermath’ in the second World War, and then this is sort of like into the 1950s.
And you have Scandinavians involved with all of them.
Yes, totally! I’m totally Scandinavian-obsessed, really. (laughs)
“The Aftermath” opens in select cities on March 15. Check out the trailer below.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW