A German Life
At The Bridge Theatre
3rd May, 2019
“I had no idea what was going on. Or very little. No more than most people. So you can’t make me feel guilty.”
I read recently that a few years ago Amazon briefly sold out its entire stock of Hannah Arendt’s 500-page treatise, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” In it, the German-born philosopher surveys the conditions that gave rise to Nazi rule, charting the gradual rise of fascism. Social shifts are slow, sometimes too slow to spot, let alone stop. Liberty gets lost, bit by bit. To arm ourselves against any repetition, we must remain alert to the tell-tale signs. Art can act as an alarm call. Christopher Hampton’s play “A German Life” seems to aim for that.
Christopher Hampton’s play is based on the testimony which Brunhilde Pomsel gave when she finally broke her silence to a group of Austrian filmmakers, shortly before she died in 2017 at the age of 106.
Maggie Smith (84) delivers an extraordinary performance in a compelling 100 minute monologue as Pomsel, whose life spanned the twentieth century. Initially, Pomsel struggled to make ends meet as a secretary in Berlin during the 1930. Her many employers including a Jewish insurance broker, the German Broadcasting Corporation and, eventually, wound up working as a secretary for Joseph Goebbels at the Ministry of Propaganda. Her shorthand skills led her to her secretarial role, rather than any ideological sympathies, or so she says. And therein lies the rub. She was, indeed, an “apolitical youth”; another ordinary German carried along by unstoppable political tide.
Smith and Pomsel become one. Smith’s credible performance combines the knowingness of hindsight with the naivety of youth, casual enough to catch you off-guard when the magnitude of events suddenly cuts through. “Isn’t it funny,” she muses, stroking her silk scarf. “The things you can’t remember and the things you’ll never forget.” Yet, you are never quite sure.
Maggie Smith expertly portrays the character’s hesitations and evasions. She brandishes throughout a pair of glasses that she never puts on. Her way of repeating certain words in a sentence, her natural pauses and conversational stumbles perfectly match the character she is playing. Sometimes she hesitates or forgets her way. Is this Smith or Pomsel? And it is this sustained ambiguity as well as Smith’s comfortable beside delivery which makes her performance all the more captivating.
Smith’s Brunhilde is likeable, and shows flashes of humour. She had friends, neighbours and colleagues from the Jewish community. She seems to be telling her story candidly. She tells of her discomfort at seeing how the Nazi leaders held such sway over the rally crowds, and how she and another female colleague were made to applaud (salute).
On the one hand, she can vividly recall Goebbels’s manicured hands and the half-hour it took to fill the bathtub he used for passionate indulgences, yet on the other, she explains with disarming vagueness that she knew nothing of the atrocities the Nazis were perpetrating.
The quiet domestic staging by Jonathan Kent is mostly static; Smith doesn’t leave the chair in the tidy apartment she is sitting in. Smith barely moves, but Anna Fleischle’s brown dully-domesticated set slides slowly forwards and hardly noticeable, and day turns to night. This subtle staging effect reinforces the point of a play; revealing what complicity actually looks like. And it looks nothing like the way we think atrocity normally looks. Complicity, it turns out, is merely a question of not asking questions.
This was relatively easy for Pomsel though as there was “no persecution of the Jews. Everything was fine.” Well, Jewish businesses were boycotted. And true, Jews around her disappeared, including her good friend Eva Löwenthal deemed to be very pretty, beautiful eyes, not very tall, reddish hair, delicate features but she did have that Jewish….Pomsel finishes the sentence as discreetly as she can with hooked finger placed next to her nose. We become more conscious of Pomsel’s edited narrative; her memories are being rewritten at a subconscious level even as she articulates them. After all, she did work for Hitler’s chief spin doctor.
“Nowadays I don’t think people would be stupid enough to fall for the kind of nonsense we fell for,” says Smith’s Pomsel.
“The sad truth,” Arendt wrote, “is that most evil is done by people who never make up their mind to be good or evil.” Brunhilde Pomsel is a case in point. Any one of us could be, even now.