A German Life by playwright Christopher Hampton adapts for the stage the end-of-life reflections of Brunhilde Pomsel, an ordinary German woman who in her youth worked in the office of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
Goebbels’ office stoked war fervour in the German people, and Pomsel was a cog in that social control machine. Nazis on trial at Nuremberg declared they were only following orders, but Pomsel instead argues that she wasn’t aware of the darker side of the Nazi regime. She provocatively claims to have done nothing wrong, and to feel no guilt for Nazi atrocities.
The play follows the 2016 Austrian documentary of the same title, with Hampton drawing on extensive interviews with Pomsel to dig deeper into her character and history. While the film gives us the woman in her own words, the play aims to connect us with the complex everywoman, who can be nostalgic and playful as well as rigid and haunted.
A key question of the performance is whether we believe Pomsel’s professed naivety. Even Hampton after studying her interview transcripts could only say “I almost believed her.”
Director Neil Armfield opts for a naturalistic style that reinforces the authenticity of Pomsel’s testimony, an approach that challenges us to weigh the truth of Pomsel’s words, and to connect her moral compromises with our own lives, where studied ignorance is often the easy choice.
Robyn Nevin incarnates Pomsel in a marathon 90 minute monologue, her movements frail and slow but always purposeful. Her German accent is spot-on, and she finds the emotional fractures in Pomsel’s plausible but overtold self-justifications. The conviction of her performance kept the audience rapt, and brought to life described characters such as the precise but taciturn Joseph Goebbels, as vividly as if there were other actors on the stage.
Gentle cello music by Alan John (performed by Catherine Finnis) supported the shifting tone of the narrative, as did Nigel Levings’ subtle dusk and dawn of the soul lighting changes. Set and costume by Dale Ferguson were authentic to the bland comfort of nursing homes, adding to the naturalistic vibe of the play, and a constant reminder that this is Pomsel’s final statement on her life before she leaves it.
Despite excellent direction by Armfield and a brilliant performance by Nevin, the play was limited by the necessity of strict adherence to the facts of Pomsel's biography. Hampton’s script is rich and nuanced, but Pomsel muddles through life, coasting as much as steering. She does not grapple with the extreme choices that can be found in an invented story like Sophie’s Choice, which saps the play of dramatic power. The oral history approach also creates psychological distance, as does Pomsel's positioning as a possible unreliable narrator. We are called on to judge more than to participate.
Without a final catharsis, we feel the banality of life, where we may not find dignity in either redemption or damnation, but only accumulate lost opportunities.