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A German Life, by Christopher Hampton
Dame Maggie Smith stars as Brunhilde Pomsel, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels' stenographer
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Bridge Theatre, London SE1 until May 11 - Information and Tickets
By the time they reach their eighties most acting legends, you’d think, would settle for the odd lucrative cameo in a big budget film or, if they could be wooed back on the boards, it would be for a supporting role, which steals the show while giving them top billing and the best dressing room. But Britain is blessed with a tough generation of octogenarian Thespians who have very different ideas.
There’s Glenda Jackson giving us her second King Lear on Broadway, Vanessa Redgrave working constantly in big plays like The Inheritance, Sir Ian McKellen off on a gruelling national tour of his one man show and now Dame Maggie Smith delivering a taxing 100 minute monologue, without a break.
It marks her return to the stage after a 12 year absence and for an 84 year old is an astonishing feat of recall. She’s not helped by the fact that she’s seated at a desk throughout and so can’t rely on physical cues and has only one prop, a pair of spectacles which she brandishes but, interestingly, never puts on.
Her character, Brunhilde Pomsel, does conveniently admit now and again “I’ve lost my thread” for she is, after all, giving an interview. Christopher Hampton’s play is drawn from the testimony that the real life Pomsel gave to an Austrian documentary crew just a few years before she died in 2017 at the age of 106.
Pomsel was a quite ordinary working class Berlin woman who trained as a shorthand typist and drifted from a minor role in a Jewish-owned insurance firm to the state radio station, which was soon subsumed into the Nazi propaganda machine. As a reward for being the fastest typist she was moved to the outside office of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s notorious Minister of Propaganda.
She characterized the work as “just another job” and was adamant to the documentary crew that her interview was “absolutely not about clearing my conscience”. The play therefore is a record of a life rather than an inquiry and audiences are left to draw their own conclusions.
At a moment when extremism is again on the rise the play takes on a fresh significance. For most of it Pomsel recounts her life story. She had no interest in politics and even on the day she went along to join the Nazi Party, a requirement for the job, she brought a Jewish friend along, who waited outside. Gradually, however, we begin to question the limits of her gauche naivety and Smith is supremely expert at calibrating the moral evasiveness here. There is a slight verbal hesitancy when she finally talks about the final months of the war. “We typed what was put in front of us” she claims but at the same time recalls being required to greatly exaggerate the numbers of rapes committed by the invading Russians, or what happened to the activist Sophie Scholl. This ambiguity reveals the complacency which she has carefully tried to deny. By focusing on a very particular story Hampton touches on a painful truth here: when it becomes too dangerous, for your own personal safety, to take a stand, then isn’t it really too late to say you’re sorry?
Pomsel did have a healthy scepticism and she wittily dismisses Goebbels for his pumped up arrogance. “At least he was handsome” though she quips whereas “the rest of them were hooligans”.
When it was over she was imprisoned for 5 years in the former Sachenhausen concentration camp. She describes the dissonance of having to take their desperately needed twice yearly showers in the same stalls where people had been previously been gassed. There is a poignant naivety too about her attempt to find out what became of her old Jewish friend Eva. What did she expect? It’s the recounting of how familiar faces from her old neighborhood were disappeared and replaced which totally chills and it reminds us that complacency starts small.
The challenge for Maggie Smith here was to make us forget that Dowager Countess and she does. She’s aided by Jonathan Kent’s subtle direction and a great design by Anna Fleischle. Her set at first seems a simple naturalistic recreation of the care home kitchen but as Pomsel lets us more into her confidence, the set, ever so slowly, insinuates itself across the stage, so that by the end she is up close and now under a harsh spotlight. The focus has shifted.