Monday 15th April 2019 at The Bridge Theatre, London.
Brunhilde Pomsel led a fascinating life. By chance, she found herself working closely with key figures of the Nazi regime, finding herself Joseph Goebbels’ secretary and subsequently imprisoned for the association. This may well be the information which defines her story, but in Christopher Hampton’s play, drawn from Pomsel’s testimony, we are given the opportunity to map the progression of one individual’s unlikely journey from dutiful young girl to a saddened but surprisingly and quietly defiant old woman.
Dame Maggie Smith takes centre stage to single-handedly share that life with us from a simple chair in a simple room where Pomsel finds herself in her later years. It’s a masterclass.
Recollections of youth carry a likeable innocence and there’s mild humour to be found in her naive asides. Her pre-occupation with earnings as a young woman is relatable. Her father’s interference equally so. Smith secures connection swiftly and from here encourages us to consider the story not just as indifferent or judgemental listeners, but from Pomsel’s perspective; that is the unspoken request in Smith’s performance.
It is with the political shift to the Nazi party that Pomsel’s story also takes a turn for the worse. It is through masterful storytelling that Smith keeps us close and attentive, chatting away with periodic lapses characteristic of those recalling troubling details of eventful lives. It’s a deeply human performance full of hazy and compelling truth.
Pomsel seems genuinely, even now within a retrospective journey after significant distance from events, unable to evaluate the flaws held in each small step towards abandoning values so integral to ‘good’ people. She does however remain absolutely certain of her innocence; she was kept as a distance even from within the Propaganda Headquarters. She let herself be swept up in various jobs as her status gradually rose in unison. She had a peripheral awareness of people disappearing and the existence of concentration camps but she was a mere typist and secretary in a well-paid job where she was shown courtesy and kindness – what could she have possibly done in the world outside of that bubble?
Seeds of scepticism are planted very early with Pomsel declaring that she struggles to remember but will do her best. There are false starts and extended pauses as she gathers herself and her thoughts. She is ultimately trying to convince us that the German people, herself included, had little awareness of the true extent of the atrocities taking place under Hitler’s regime. It brings to the forefront the divisive question/ accusation surrounding the people of Germany during this dark period of history: did they know? They must have known. How could they not have known? So, we wonder, how much does Pomsel protect herself with those pauses and how many hesitations are as much about convincing herself as us?
At a 1 hour 45 minute monologue without interval, A German Life is undoubtedly a test of any actor’s mettle. To hold a room for that length of time with no real stagecraft, blocking or significant movement to support is surely a daunting concept. Factor into this minimal fleeting ambient sound and elsewise total silence, it’s a stunningly charged set-up as everything rests on Smith who sits centre stage and holds us all in time for the duration.
What’s particularly winning about having Dame Maggie Smith on stage again after 12 long years is that A German Life gives Smith a platform to remind us of her gentler, more nuanced capabilities. Of late her film and television roles have glorified her superb depictions of formidable women in the forms of Dowager Countess, dotty cockney, eccentric van lady and powerful Scottish witch. Granted, each character has depth and Smith brings variety to the roles, but they are at core strong, often belligerent characters with only glimpses of being able to sway in the breeze. Yes, Smith has indeed also played more understated and delicate roles but the most renowned place her primarily as an imperious force to be reckoned with. This production however centres on a character who ultimately battles herself more than anyone else, making her vulnerable to her own half-complete memories and shaky recollections. It’s delicate and nuanced and incredibly powerful to watch.
When Pomsel takes aim and draws parallels to our current political climate, it’s genuinely frightening, with the audience reaction divided into uncomfortable laughter or stunned silence. The uncomfortable similarities between Pomsel and ourselves grow as suddenly as the differences fade to the background. The central, explosive truth of the play and of Brunhilde Pomsel’s story is enough to keep you up at night.
I’d recommend you book, but the entire run is sold out, naturally – this is a living legend on stage after all! You can try your luck with tickets here.
Director: Jonathan Kent, Designer: Anna Fleischle, Lighting Designer: Jon Clark, Sound Designer: Paul Groothius.