In A German Life, Robyn Nevin gives a masterly performance of complicity as she recounts the life of Goebbels’ stenographer, says Robert Reid
In 2017 Brunhilde Pomsel, stenographer to the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, died, aged 106. The year before, she gave a series of interviews for a documentary that shares the title of the stage show by British playwright, Christopher Hampton. In that 30-minute documentary, Pomsel gives her eye witness account of the rise to power of te Third Reich, and its devastating results.
Hampton, who is perhaps best known for his screenplay of The Quiet American, draws on interviews by Austrian film makers, Christian Krones, Olaf Muller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer, to create a 90 minute tour de force for a solo performer. Performed originally at the Bridge Theatre, London, by Maggie Smith in 2019, the Adelaide Festival presents Robyn Nevin in the role of Pomsel under the direction of Neil Armfield.
The hour and a half passes in almost breathless silence.
Pomsel’s is such a familiar story of the banality of evil. It’s a close-up view of the little people who got caught up in the war and the madness of Nazi Germany, and yet the telling of the story is still so powerful. Pomsel is the little typist who became the secretary for Goebbels, a man she describes first as polite, immaculately dressed and manicured, but who she comes to see as a “horrible midget” who terrifies her when she sees him in full flight at a rally.
The show is redolent with a constant refrain of Germans of that generation – that they didn’t know – and the acknowledgement that she supposes that they didn’t want to know. Pomsel tells us over and over again – probably telling herself more than anyone else – that she wasn’t interested in politics and never actively wanted to be a Nazi. Despite this, the little moments that she recounts betray her supposed ignorance. Each time she recalls how the Jews are being boycotted, how they disappear from Berlin, how they are being sent to concentation camps for “re-education”, it reveals how deeply she feels her complicity, no matter how strenuously she denies it.
She describes going to a rally with her boyfriend at the time, a brownshirt, and how she found the politics and speeches boring. She tells us how she “probably voted for the Nazi party in the first election” – although, she hastens to add, not in the second election that got them elected. That time she voted had for the social democrats, she says, because she liked the colours on their flag. She tells us how she joined the Nazi party because her boss at the radio station told her she would have to if she wanted to keep her job, and how it drove away her close Jewish friend, Eva Löwenthal.
Pomsel protests that she feels no guilt, asking how you can have guilt for something you knew nothing about. She denies the guilt of the German people too but, in every pause, every caught breath, you can see that this isn’t what she feels. That guilt runs deep and painful. Perhaps, as with modern inheritors of colonisation, denial and wilful ignorance is the only way she could live with herself. In almost the first sentence, when she explains her memory is not what it used to be, she tells us that we will have to … and then stops because the next words out of her mouth were probably going to have been “forgive me”. She can’t say even this because she knows she can’t be forgiven. Nor can she forgive herself.
She keeps telling us how nice many of the Nazi officers were, the lower tier leaders she has interactions with: how charming, handsome and well dressed. She tells a story of a beautiful blue and white suit lent to her by Magda Goebbels after Pomsel’s belongings were destroyed in a bombing raid and she’d been left with nothing but the party dress she’d been wearing. Pomsel’s recollections are detailed and include many small touches drawn from her direct experience. Although she comes into the orbit of some of the familiar big names of the war – there are pictures of her sitting alongside Hitler – often the tiny details are the most convincing.
The story begins on the day when her father left for World War I when she was three years old. It progresses through the 1920s and ’30s, as the Germany she knows is descending into horror. She can’t bring herself to describe Kristallnacht, and struggles to remember the name of “that terrible night when they broke all the glass”.
She tells us towards the end that the German people, the little people who only went along, who were afraid to lose their livelihoods and feared for the survival of their families, were perhaps only guilty of stupidity. She says that she doesn’t think it could happen again, that people are much smarter now and you wouldn’t be able to get it past them. The audience chuckles darkly, because we know of course that the same terrible currents are swirling in the world once more, and that even now we see people around the world falling for the same lies, fears, and self-interest.
Nevin gives a stunning performance. Subtle, gentle, endearing, incredibly detailed and nuanced. From the moment she enters through the door to her nursing home room until the lights go out on her at the end, it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. She’s transformed. She’s not the tiny powerhouse Nevin that is so familiar to Australian theatre goers: now she is a little old German lady, alone until the end. She’s the 103 year old woman who has been robbed of the chance at a family because she fell in love with a married man, become pregnant to him and was coerced into an abortion because it wasn’t the done thing in those days to be an unwed mother or have a child out of wedlock. She is the survivor of the war and the terrible year that followed. Her German accent is impressively observed and never drops for a moment. Even before she reaches the stage, we can see her walk from backstage towards the set: she is shuffling forward with the careful steps of Pomsel, not Nevin’s strong, confident stride.
Pomsel always tells us when the person she is recalling was Jewish. The Jewish customers of her father’s business. The Jewish employers she worked for before becoming part of the propaganda department. The Jewish friends who disappeared into the camps. The Jewish, or half Jewish, boyfriends. It’s a constant reminder that the anti-Semitism of the time wasn’t all raving, spittle-flecked extremism. That it was, and still is, a pervasive attitude. Sometimes she catches herself in it, stopping just short of describing her beautiful red-headed Jewish friend, Löwenthal, as having the “Jewish nose”, though she still makes a hooked nose gesture.
The set is the nursing home room in which she will spend her last days. It’s rendered with the same attention to detail Nevin brings to her performance. It’s smaller than the stage at the Dunstan, and sits like a dollshouse room in a sea of black. To the side a cellist (Catherine Finnis) plays classical music, or imitates an air raid horn during the bombing of Berlin (did the Germans have the same air raid horns as the English?) In transitions between scenes, perhaps the passing of time, perhaps Pomsel struggling with the more difficult memories, the walls of the nursing home become screens for familiar and chilling black and white historic footage. There are clips from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia, and newsreel footage of the devastation in the Jewish ghettos, with emaciated corpses lying in the street as people walk casually past, the starving faces being turned out of their homes by Nazis in uniform. The concentration camps and the footage of the fall of Berlin tower above her, dwarfing her in grainy black and white.
“There is no such thing as justice,” Pomsel tells us. She thinks there’s probably no such thing as God either, “but there is evil”. She’s talking here about the murder of Goebbels’ six children. She doesn’t care about the suicides of what she calls the cowardly leaders, Hitler and his generals and their wives, but the deaths of their children bring her to tears. “The worst crimes of the war”, she says, then catches herself saying that they were “at least as terrible as anything else that happened”. I might be imagining it, but I think I feel the audience bristle around me at this, recognising maybe that their deaths, while tragic and terrible, can’t be compared with the 75 million deaths in the camps or on the battle fields.
Memoir plays, especially solo performances, can be hamstrung at times by the impossibility of action. Everything in these plays has always already happened. But Nevin and Armfield, with Hampton’s script and Pomsel’s own words, make this simple telling so perfectly pitched and balanced that it doesn’t happen here. There’s no expectation that drama will happen in the moment, but the tension builds as every moment passes and we creep towards the appalling, inevitable conclusion.
Pomsel escapes much of the worst of what might have befallen her. She has lucky escapes, such as evacuating the bombed building, or being saved from a patrol of Russian soldiers – Mongolian, she thinks, unkempt and with eyes she describes with a racial slur – and being rescued by a group of Russian officers. Pomsel spends five years in Buchenwald prison under the guard of the Russian NKVD, before she is released and sent home. It’s only then, she says, that she learns of the true extent of the horrors that had taken place in her Germany, in her name and with her help.
She learns of the gassings that had taken place in the same Buchenwald showers that she and her fellow prisoners used to bathe in during their incarceration. It doesn’t seem too bad for them, she says, there as they sun themselves in the pleasant 1945 summer. There’s a little theatre at the camp where concerts and some comic plays given by the inmates. She chokes on the memory now, knowing that only a few years before these same buildings had been sites of genocide.
A German Life never shouts at us. It never trumpets its politics, but they are present in every heartbeat. It is inescapable: both in its depiction of a broken generation of German survivors, complicit no matter how wilfully ignorant they allowed themselves to be, and in its wry allusions to our contemporary global slide once more towards authoritarianism and fascism. It’s gentle, it’s tender, it’s a fine portrait of a little old lady who you could almost bring yourself to like. It’s all the more devastating for the care it takes with her.
How people are not in floods of tears at the end, I don’t know. How this didn’t get a standing ovation, I don’t know. Maybe people are just desensitised. Which is a worry, because Pomsel is the embodiment of just that kind of desensitisation. Well-worn territory, I suppose. Still, I feel every moment of it.
What are these warnings for, I wonder? What good do they do in these halls, where everyone already knows these things, and has – supposedly – already learned these lessons? Will we hear them again and decide finally to stand up against the tide that is turning once more? Will these stories make us see the forces in our own lives, or are they another way of turning a blind eye? Will we just snigger in the dark because we think we’re so much smarter than the little people who just went along with the flow?
I’ve got a terrible feeling I already know the answer to that.
A German Life, by Christopher Hampton, based on the documentary film A German Life by Christian Krönes, Olaf Műller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer. Directed by Neil Armfield, composer Alan John, set and costume design by Dale Ferguson, lighting design by Nigel Levings, sound design by Jane Rossetto, cello played by Catherine Finnis, performed by Robyn Nevin. Presented at the Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre as part of the Adelaide Festival.