A German Life
Bridge Theatre, 15th April 2019
It is pretty easy when you spend as much time consuming theatre as the Tourist to go full on luvvie and get well carried away with the “genius” of playwrights, directors, creatives and, especially, actors. So you would probably be wise to ignore all of what follows and the gushing that generally ensues whenever acting royalty treads the boards. But, just for once, this was the real deal.
I see, for example, in today’s Guardian that there is a ranked list of Dame Judi Dench’s film roles. It’s pretty thin pickings, with the exception of some big screen Shakespeare, Iris, Philomena and, especially, Notes on a Scandal. This is not because Dame JD is a poor actress. Nonsense. It is because most films are rubbish. But when a proper text is given to her she is peerless. Which, for anyone who has ever seen her on stage, should be self-evident. I only know her from the recent collaborations with Kenneth Branagh and Michael Grandage, an RSC Mother Courage, Madame de Sade and the Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose. Too young and too stupid to have seen her in any major Shakespeare roles unfortunately.
Mind you I had never seen, until now, Dame Maggie Smith, on stage. Never saw The Lady in the Van at the NT or in the West End. Or earlier West End triumphs like Albee’s Three Tall Women and A Delicate Balance, or David Hare’s The Breath of Life. All in the fallow period for the Tourist’s theatre going. So it’s just the film and telly stuff. More often than not DMS stamps her mark on these screen roles so completely that you cannot imagine anyone else playing them. Sardonic, trenchant, caustic, acerbic, take your pick of adjectives, you know what I mean. Yet always something far more profound, revealing and empathetic beyond the natural comic timing.
So I wasn’t going to miss this. Whatever it was. Even if she had read out the telephone directory. As it happens a play based on the testimony of Brunhilde Pomsel, a personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, was always going to be right up my street. Ms Pomsel died in 2017, aged 106, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, having given a series of interviews, aged 102, that formed the basis for a documentary film A German Life, produced and directed by Christian Krones, Olaf Muller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer. This script in turn formed the basis for a subsequent biography and for Christopher’s Hampton’s translation and adaptation for the Bridge stage.
Ms Pomsel had a relatively unremarkable upbringing, despite the remarkable times, as a child in WWI and in 1920s Germany, and went to work as a stenographer in the late 1920’s for a Jewish lawyer and, soon after, simultaneously, for a right wing insurance broker. In 1933 she moved to a a job in the news department of the Third Reich’s broadcasting department, (having taken up Nazi Party membership), and eventually was posted in 1942 to the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment where she was a shorthand writer. Following the fall of Berlin in 1945, and Goebbels’s suicide, she was imprisoned by the Soviet NKVD for 5 years in various concentration camps, escaping to West Germany after her release and working for state broadcasters until her retirement, living in Munich.
Now it is pretty easy to see why the German documentary makers alighted on Brunhilde Pomsel. Yes, her proximity to Goebbels, but also the clarity and honesty of her recollection. Her apparent apolitical stance, she joined the party to get the job and couldn’t quite remember if she voted for the Nazis or the DNVP (the Nationalist party) in the early 1930s, but liked the colours and the meetings, and refusal, even in retrospect to utterly condemn the system she found herself at the heart of, made her a more authentic commentator on what happened to Germany than many others with more pointed conviction in their stories. Her testimony is not concerned with her own personal guilt or innocence and can therefore more credibly get to the heart of the question: what would you have done differently in the same situation?
I am not sure if Mr Hampton had Maggie Smith in mind when he began the process of translating and editing the material from the documentary, though I gather she had plenty of input to the final outcome. I assume that an unbroken monologue, in line with the film, was the only feasible option but I would guess again that Mr Hampton, and the creative team here, Jonathan Kent as director, Anna Fleischle (designer), Jon Clark (lighting), Paul Groothuis (sound), must have had some trepidation at presenting a talking head for near two hours. The set, a naturalistic representation of Ms Pomsel’s apartment, moves gradually towards the front of the thrust stage, Mr Clark’s lighting subtly rings changes and there are a handful of crucial sound interventions, (not least of which is subtle amplification – the Bridge is a brilliant space but not intimate), but otherwise it is just DMS sat in chair.
They shouldn’t have worried (in fact they probably didn’t). From the opening knowing aside “let’s see how this goes”, through Ms Pomsel’s strict childhood, her delight in Weimar Berlin society, the reckoning of Kristallnacht, the fear in Hitler’s bunker, disgust at the Soviets and the search for her Jewish friend post-war (she died in a camp in 1943), DMS is, and this is no exaggeration, spell-binding. You don’t hear and see a German centenarian on stage, it’s still DMS, but this is the vivid, animated story of a real person, conveyed in an entirely naturalistic way, with just hesitant voice, mobile hands and febrile face. Leaving you ample opportunity, as the details build, to reflect on the core question posed above. For it seems to me that any guilt than Ms Pomsel may have carried was actually more the guilt at not feeling guilt, despite all that had happened, and not the guilt of complicity, ignorance or indifference. The banality that lies behind Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil personified. The contradictions about what she did and didn’t know about the concentration camps, or more actually cared to remember about what she knew, especially when contrasted with her own experience in these same camps after the war, are the most pointed passages of testimony and play. “We didn’t want to know about them, we really didn’t”.
This I suppose is why this “evil” is a constant in human history. It’s not lack of resistance or evasive denial that lets this continue. Just “ordinary” people not understanding or caring enough to stop it. This story will never be irrelevant.