Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 July 2019

'The Aftermath' is a lesson in forgiveness, says author Rhidian Brook

As the film adaptation of ‘The Aftermath’ is released in cinemas this weekend, we speak to Rhidian Brook about the real-life story behind his novel

Rhidian Brook wrote a book and helped pen a script based on his British grandfather's experiences in Germany Courtesy Fox Searchlight
Rhidian Brook wrote a book and helped pen a script based on his British grandfather's experiences in Germany Courtesy Fox Searchlight

When novelist and screenwriter Rhidian Brook arrived for a meeting with film producer Jack Arbuthnott back in 2010, he had come prepared.

Brook had a host of movie ideas to pitch, but there was a small problem: Arbuthnott didn’t like any of them.

Not content to go home empty-handed, however, Brook turned his mind to his own grandfather, and a story he’d been thinking about writing since 2007.

Arbuthnott loved it, and nine years later, the result is The Aftermath, a period drama starring Keira Knightley and Alexander Skarsgard that opens in UAE cinemas this weekend.

A true tale

The story is an intriguing one. In 1946, only months after the end of the Second World War, Brook’s grandfather Jack, a captain in the British Army, was stationed in Hamburg. He was helping with the reconstruction programme that the victorious British, French and Russians were undertaking in the devastated country.

Author Rhidian Brook, right, and his father Kim, left, and actor Jason Clarke on the set of 'The Aftermath'. Courtesy Fox Searchlight
Author Rhidian Brook, right, and his father Kim, left, and actor Jason Clarke on the set of 'The Aftermath'. Courtesy Fox Searchlight

As was common practice at the time, a house was requisitioned from a well-to-do local family for Grandpa Brook and his family to live in. What was not so common at the time was that, rather then sending the house’s previous occupants to a refugee camp, the captain said, according to Brook: “We’ll share the house – it’s big enough.”

So, for the next five years, Brook’s grandfather, his wife and their two eldest children shared a home with a German family who mere months before would have been considered mortal enemies. The time was punctuated with a tense undercurrent thanks to the two families’ awareness that their respective countries had been causing wanton destruction and death in the other’s homeland for six long years.

They commissioned a script, which was great, except that I really wanted to write it as a book

Rhidian Brook, author of 'The Aftermath'

It’s an undeniably complex relationship. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that prior to his meeting with Arbuthnott, Brook had been failing to write the story for at least three years, ever since he had visited the Hamburg house in 2007 and met the family his grandfather and infant father had lived with.

Equally unsurprising is that, having been given the green light to turn the story into a screenplay, Brook again found himself caught up in the tale’s nuances, and instead produced a novel in 2013. It would take another six years for the film to finally see the light of day.

“They commissioned a script, which was great, except that I really wanted to write it as a book,” Brook tells The National. “So I started writing the script and then got a book deal on the 50 to 60 pages that I had written. And it was quite a big worldwide deal in terms of translations, so it was enough for me to stop everything and write the book. Books take slightly longer to write than scripts.”

From left to right: Alexander Skarsgaard, Jason Clarke and Keira Knightley in the film 'The Aftermath'. Courtesy Fox Searchlight
From left to right: Alexander Skarsgaard, Jason Clarke and Keira Knightley in the film 'The Aftermath'. Courtesy Fox Searchlight

With the novel of the same name complete and translated into an impressive 25 languages, Brook was finally able to turn his attention to his film once more. But now, he encountered a new problem: he’d become so close to the subject matter that he felt unable to approach the scriptwriting task objectively.

“I came back to the film and ... I had spent too long in postwar Germany by then.”

Brook let go of his baby and handed scriptwriting duties over to a new team, the screenwriting duo Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (Race, Against All Enemies), while remaining involved on a more consultative basis.

As a novelist you learn to let things go if they are adapted

Rhidian Brook

“Obviously film is a collaborative thing,” he says. “As a novelist you learn to let things go if they’re adapted. But as a scriptwriter you have to learn to let things go, too, because so much doesn’t end up on screen. So it’s been an interesting process. It has three incarnations, really: there’s the real story, the novelisation and now the film – I’ve been quite closely involved because of the family history, my connection to Jack, and I’ve had a degree of say in changes.”

Artistic licence

Brook admits that his book has used a degree of artistic licence to embellish and dramatise the story, and the film even more so. For example, Knightley’s character moves to Hamburg having lost a child in the London Blitz, which was not the case for Brook’s grandmother. Meanwhile, the inevitable romantic angle in the big-screen treatment was not necessarily a facet of the real-life events. Nonetheless, the author insists that in terms of the journey the main characters undertake, both his novel and the movie are true to life. “The thing that really interested me was that [my father] said my grandmother felt quite a lot of resentment being told she was going to be sharing a house with ‘the enemy’. I mean, the war was over, but they were still the enemy.

The Hamburg home that stars in 'The Aftermath' film. Courtesy Fox Searchlight
The Hamburg home that stars in 'The Aftermath' film. Courtesy Fox Searchlight

“I was curious about her journey, of her moving from perhaps prejudice and resentment to acceptance and being friends with former enemies.

“That’s really what this journey’s about. There’s a sort of micro and a macro element to the story … this sort of reconstruction of a marriage and then the reconstruction of a country,” he adds.

A lesson in forgiveness

The Aftermath may be set during a very specific time period, but Brook notes such musings on the “reconstruction” of a nation and forgiving “enemies” remain just as relevant today. “When I was writing this story, the book, and even before, thinking about it, the resonance at that time was about the reconstruction of Iraq, and how you rebuild a country that you’ve occupied or bombed.” He asked himself questions such as: “How could they possibly help another country that had been battering them get back on its feet?”

While Europe undoubtedly learnt a lot about forgiveness in the Forties, now, Brook says, issues such as Brexit could throw the rapprochement of the era into question.

“It probably has even more resonance now in a sense, as this story is set at a time when Europe was destroyed and had to rebuild itself,” he says.

Back then, that happened through a combination of hard work and a lot of money, as well as a determination not to repeat the German humiliation of 1918 that in many ways spurred the rise of Nazism.

“It’s a sort of miracle of a moment, really, between ‘45 and ’48. There was this willingness, I think, to not lord it over the defeated, but to actually help them get back on their feet. And that’s fairly remarkable, I think. And out of that, I guess you could say modern Europe was born.”

About the movie

The Aftermath, directed by James Kent (Testament of Youth), follows Rachael Morgan (Keira Knightley) as she arrives in the ruins of Hamburg during winter to join her British colonel husband Lewis (Jason Clarke), who has been tasked with rebuilding the destroyed German city. But he’s made a surprising decision: to share their new home with its previous owners, widower Stephen Lubert (Alexander Skarsgard) and his disturbed daughter, Freda (Flora Thiemann). It’s set in 1946, only months after the end of the war, and Kent portrays a city on its knees. Meanwhile, tensions rise at the Morgan-Lubert home. As Lubert comes to terms with the loss of his wife, whose family were part of the Nazi party, the Morgans are dealing with their own grief – their young son was killed during the war by a German bomb. It’s a complicated, intricately layered story of grief and forgiveness that has drawn comparisons to Joe Wright’s poignant adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement.

The Aftermath is in cinemas across the UAE now

Updated: April 11, 2019 03:50 PM

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