Monday, 15 April 2019

Theatre review: A German Life

Twelve years after unofficially retiring from the stage Maggie Smith* is back and, in typical fashion, not doing things by halves - A German Life is just her on stage for nearly two hours. Christopher Hampton’s monologue about Brunhilde Pomsel is based on the 106-year-old’s testimony, given shortly before her death after a lifetime of refusing to comment, to a documentary crew interested in her unique perspective on World War II. That perspective was as a secretary for the Nazi Propaganda Ministry, never working directly for Joseph Goebbels but for a number of his right-hand men. But her story begins earlier, with her first few jobs which were all for wealthy Jewish businessmen, an avenue of work which soon dried up as the Nazis came to power – and the Nazi party themselves became the best source of work, first at the state broadcaster and then at the Ministry of Propaganda itself.

So Pomsel’s narrative is very much that this was just another job to her, and that despite her proximity to power she had very little knowledge of what was actually going on.

But there’s a nagging feeling that she protests too much throughout, and despite the regret she expresses about all the deaths – including that of her Jewish childhood best friend who died at Auschwitz – she’s still very keen to see a positive side to her employers, remembering how attractive she found Goebbels (when he wasn’t frothing at the mouth making speeches) and how his wife gave her a nice suit when her house was bombed. Jonathan Kent’s production keeps Smith sitting in one place throughout, but Anna Fleischle’s set inches imperceptibly forward on the thrust as she speaks, bringing her closer to the audience as her narrative goes into progressively darker places.

A lot of older actors leave the stage because of the difficulty in remembering lines, and A German Life is a lot for anyone to remember, let alone an 84-year-old. I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else so maybe it varies by performance, but tonight Smith was clearly struggling to remember it all, which added an unintended extra element of tension, and a couple of story beats may have been missed out (Pomsel’s hours at the Jewish business get cut to mornings-only, but how that translates to her working for the Nazis in the afternoon wasn’t clear.) It’s quite an achievement that Smith still manages to put in a performance that turns on a sixpence even when she’s reaching for her lines, but it does make for a bit of an uncomfortable evening and not just in the way intended.

A German Life by Christopher Hampton, based on the documentary by Christian Krönes, Olaf Müller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer, is booking until the 11th of May at the Bridge Theatre (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Helen Maybanks.

*never Dame Maggie, not professionally – she’s not Sir King Bensley

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