Review By Lisa Lanzi
“Isn’t it funny,” muses the aged character of Brunhilde Pomsel, portrayed by Robyn Nevin. “The things you can’t remember and the things you’ll never forget.”
A German Life is written by English playwright, translator, screen-writer and film director Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Appomattoxx, Savages). Hampton was inspired after seeing the film A German Life in 2016, directed by Austrian filmmakers Christian Krönes, Florian Weigensamer, Roland Schrotthofer, and Olaf S. Müller. However it was the transcriptions of the full interviews conducted by the filmmakers in 2013, when Pomsel was 102, that led to the words and action we witness in this play.
As evocative, cello music floats through the auditorium, composed by Alan John and played exquisitely on side stage by Catherine Finnis, on older woman enters and fussily inspects her belongings in a bedroom with an institutional feel. Ms Nevin imbues this person with a slightly stooped posture, a gait no longer youthful and expressive hands that clutch a tissue, a cup, a jug of water or tug at a cardigan with that lack of confidence that suggests the trials of age-related arthritis. She carefully places a chair, sits and begins her tale with a flawless, darkly-toned and Germanic-accented lilt. Nevin’s carefully crafted Brunhilde loses the thread of her thoughts at times, briefly forgetting the name of the horrific Kristallnacht or losing the place in her narrative. In the beginning we see an older, frail woman in a care situation and I wondered how many of us have gazed upon such a person with no thought or recognition of the remarkable life they may have lived. As this tale unfolds, the sheer scale of a life that parallels significant political and social events of the 20th Century is revealed.
In Brunhilde Pomsel’s case, that story could be one of a naïve, apolitical woman who was carried away with the grandeur and rhetoric of the period and voted for the Nazi party: “of course I did”. Or was she complicit in even a small way, working as she eventually did in the Ministry of Propaganda as personal secretary for Joseph Goebbels - she was eventually interrogated by Russian forces and jailed for five years in 1945 - how much awareness did she truly have of the events surrounding her. Brunhilde explains, with an ironic tone that she served her jail term in Buchenwald Concentration Camp, one of the ‘things’ one can never forget. The ploy of innocence does not always counter the knowledge she exhibits.
Pomsel’s story only came to public attention when she was 102 years old and it is certainly colourful, emotional, complex and riveting. Director Neil Armfield has made insightful, distinctive production choices yet wisely allowed the text to shine and for the superb Ms Nevin to inhabit the character without any superfluous or distracting artifice. The audience in turn is invited to absorb the tale in an appropriately intimate fashion so that the scale of the theatre is somehow reduced and we could simply be sitting across from this woman, one on one. The unpretentious but considered set design by Dale Ferguson enforces this sense of intimacy with its off-kilter diagonal placement within the bare bones of the Playhouse stage. The room exists as an isolated safe haven (of denial?) dropped into the maelstrom of the timeline under discussion. Nigel Levings’ lighting design is perfectly nuanced as we observe the shifts from Pomsel’s chatty reminiscing and delight at being in the spotlight to her instances of grief or confusion.
From time to time, the cello music returns and underscores moments of forgetfulness or a particular image, including the moving image: at certain points in the play, black and white footage is beamed large onto the walls of the bedroom. These archival images (from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the Library of Congress) of traumatized people, bombed buildings and more are poignant and disturbing, and could well be part of Brunhilde’s innermost memories and musings, the horrors she professes to know little of as she lived her life.
This role is a gift for an older actor and the outstanding production is worthy Festival fare which will provoke audiences to think broadly. On one level the remarkable story of a woman’s long life and on another, a reminder of the existence of evil. It is pertinent in our own fragile world to ponder the ease with which power can corrupt and destroy the fabric of government, society and community, just as history has informed us time and time again. As Armfield notes, he and Nevin were working on this production during the tumultuous period of Trump’s stranglehold on America. We need to stay vigilant, and the Arts, as always have the power to prompt us to higher thinking, if not action or even activism.