It was, says Alexander Skarsgård, a very easy decision when he was asked to join a stellar cast for James Kent’s post World War II drama The Aftermath. 

For a start, he already had it on the authority of one of his close friends, fellow Swedish actor Alicia Vikander, that Kent was a very fine director. Ms Vikander had starred in one of the British filmmaker’s previous films, Testament of Youth. 

“She is a dear friend of mine and she had a lovely time with him and spoke very highly of him. And obviously there was the script. I fell in love with the story and the character,” he says.

“I read quite a few World War Two stories, and post WWII stories, but this felt very different and I thought it was very interesting that it was set in Hamburg and it was very interesting to see the devastation and the horrors of war on both sides.”

The Aftermath is set in Hamburg immediately after the end of World War II. Much of the city was obliterated by Allied bombing in 1943, when more than 40,000 people were killed, and post war thousands of refugees were living on the streets or in the ruins of what was once their homes.

Skarsgård is Stefan Lubert, a cultured, wealthy German who lost his wife during the raids and is living with his daughter in a house requisitioned by the British occupying force after the Allies took control of the city.

The house where it all happened in The Aftermath. (Credit: Warner Bros via IMDB)

The house where it all happened in The Aftermath. (Credit: Warner Bros via IMDB)

Jason Clarke is British army officer Lewis Morgan who  – unconventionally – allows Lubert to stay on in his house. When Morgan’s wife, Rachael (Keira Knightley) arrives, she is grieving the loss of their son who died during bombing raid back in England.

Grief-stricken Rachael resents sharing the house with Germans who she regards as the enemy and her relationship Lewis is strained by separation and the loss of their child.

“Lubert is a broken man, a man who is trying to hold on to the edge of the cliff of civility in a way, and he is a very dignified and proud man and so it’s very humbling for him to be in this situation,” says Skarsgård.

“And then this couple show up and he is incredibly grateful that he gets to stay in the house because he assumes, as it was in most cases, that they would be sent to a camp.

“So the fact that they get to stay in an attic in the safety of their own home, he can’t believe his luck. But that also creates a friction because he feels that Rachael resents him and blames him for what happened during the war and the loss of her child.

Keira Knightley in The Aftermath. (Credit: Warner Bros via IMDB)

Keira Knightley in The Aftermath. (Credit: Warner Bros via IMDB)

“And she’s a philistine, she doesn’t appreciate fine art, and he’s from the Bauhaus movement, he’s very progressive and cares about architecture, art and music.

“And this woman arrives and she makes fun of this and questions him about paintings on the walls that she doesn’t know anything about and she doesn’t appreciate the artistic value of it. And that creates tension between them in the beginning of the movie.”

But as they discover, they tragically share a bond of grief – Rachael has lost a son and Lubert has lost his wife – and slowly a relationship begins that will threaten Rachael’s marriage.

“And that dynamic is very interesting,” says Skarsgård, “this complexity of Stefan Lubert who slowly falls in love with this woman from the other side and they have this shared connection through their grief and their loss.

“It’s about acknowledging the suffering of the other side – that there are civilians on the other side who are suffering and hurting and ones who have died. There are people who are going through the exact same thing as you are going through.”

Jason Clarke and Keira Knightley in The Aftermath. (Credit: Warner Bros via IMDB)

Jason Clarke and Keira Knightley on set in The Aftermath. (Credit: Warner Bros via IMDB)

For Skarsgård, the story resonates with contemporary themes – images of refugees displaced by war are sadly ever present on our screens – and how we treat people in the aftermath of conflict is a timeless issue.

“It feels very important and very relevant today all over the world. We are so detached from that suffering and that pain. It’s so easy to say ‘well, we’re not going to help those people we see on a TV screen,’” he says.

“Or it’s on social media and you can just scroll through it and you don’t have to deal with that. But it’s important to realise that these are human beings who are suffering.  And in this case, it’s about forgiving yourself a little bit and also forgiving the other side for what happened and coming to terms with that. “

He also relished the opportunity to work with Ms Knightley and Jason Clarke on what is a very complex, very grown up love story about loss, love, forgiveness and redemption.

Alexander Skarsgård and Keira Knightley in The Aftermath. (Credit: Warner Bros)

Alexander Skarsgård and Keira Knightley in The Aftermath. (Credit: Warner Bros)

“I think the three of us were so excited about that triangle, the fact that it’s so rich and deep and complex. It’s not that Lewis isn’t right for Rachael, you can understand both guys in this situation and you can feel their pain and feel their love and sympathise with them and you can understand the predicament that Rachael is in towards the end of the story.

“And both Keira and Jason are incredible actors and lovely human beings. I’d never worked with Keira or Jason before but a couple of friends of mine worked with Jason on a movie and spoke very highly of him and my Dad (the actor Stellan Skarsgård) worked with Keira ten years ago on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, so I met her then and Dad had the best time working with her.

“He said she was so cool and so down-to-earth and easy going and fun and smart and obviously an incredible actress. So it’s been lovely, it really has.”

Jason Clarke and Keira Knightley in The Aftermath. (Credit: Warner Bros via IMDB)

Jason Clarke and Keira Knightley in The Aftermath. (Credit: Warner Bros via IMDB)

Kent is a calm, warm presence on set, says the actor. “James is the nicest man you’ll ever meet. He’s genuinely a great guy and a collaborator and there’s no ego there, he just wants to do the best work.

“I’ve worked with a few directors who are the opposite, who shout and scream, and I get that in the creative process it can be frustrating and you can lose your temper when you are under pressure, of course, I totally understand that and that can happen to anyone but I hate it when I see directors who abuse that power or treat people who are working for them in that kind of way. I don’t see the point.

“James is the opposite. Anyone can say something, come up with an idea, and it doesn’t matter what your position is. People crack jokes and it’s very relaxed and fun. And he’s incredibly open to actors taking control of their characters and trying things so it’s been lovely.”

Skarsgård met writer Rhidian Brook – who co-wrote the screenplay and also penned the novel, also called The Aftermath – inspired by his grandfather’s time serving with the British forces in post war Hamburg.

Ridley Scott’s company, Scott Free, developed the project and the acclaimed filmmaker is one of the producers on The Aftermath. Scott spent time in post war Hamburg when he was a child with his father who was serving in the British army.

“I met Ridley and the author of the book (Rhidian Brook) came on set with his father and I wouldn’t say it was based on his story but it’s inspired by it.

Rhidian’s father came here with his father, who was an officer, just after the war and was here for four years and let the German family who owned the house, stay in the house.

“It was incredible to meet them because you can only do so much research from books or watching documentaries. When you meet someone who lived through that, someone who was actually here and experienced exactly that scenario we have in the script and in the book, it gives you so much.

Skarsgård is the son of esteemed actor Stellan Skarsgård, and brother to actors qGustav (The Wizard’s Daughter), Bill (It) and Valter (Innan Wintern Kommer). He was born in Stockholm, Sweden and first acted as a child and returned to acting after serving in the Swedish military.

He played Sgt Brad Colbert in the acclaimed mini series Generation Kill and starred as vampire Eric Northman in seven seasons of the hugely popular True Blood. He won a Golden Globe for his performance opposite Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in the TV series Big Little Lies. Also on TV, he recently starred as Israeli secret agent Gadi in the BBC’s acclaimed mini series The Little Drummer Girl.

His films include Kill Your Darlings, The Last Drop, Beyond The Pole, 13, Melancholia, What Maisie Knew, The East, Diary of a Teenage Girl, War on Everyone, The Legend of Tarzan, Mute, The Hummingbird Project and Hold the Dark.

The Aftermath is open in cinemas now.

This article was contributed by Warner Bros Singapore.

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