Bridge Theatre, Theatre, London – until 11 May 2019
When Maggie Smith heads to the stage it is undoubtedly a big draw but I think the play, A German Life, is equally worthy of the attention.
I’ve long been fascinated with stories from the Second World War told from non-traditional perspectives. A German Life is based on the life of Brunhilde Pomsel who was one of Goebbels’ secretaries.
Smith’s Hilde sits at a kitchen table, glasses in her hand and tells us about her life and how she came to be working at the Reich’s propaganda ministry at the end of the war – something for which she spent five years in prison.
She tells us up front that she doesn’t remember much – is it telling where she can recall details and where she cannot? It is an exceptional story of someone extraordinary in their ordinariness.
She was pulled out of school at 15 by her father, a veteran of the First World War, who didn’t think girls worth the expense of an education but who, in defiance, got a job as a trainee secretary at a big department store. As times got tough, she worked two jobs, at one point she was employed simultaneously by a Jewish lawyer and a member of the far right. For Hilde, the work was her focus, she held no perceivable prejudices.
It was a job at the Third Reich’s broadcasting unit where she seemed happiest, giddy on the glamour of it and falling in love with the reporters. In many ways she was modern women, enjoying a certain amount of independence, earning a living and having string of boyfriends.
Through her story, you get a sense of the sentiment in Germany in the years leading up to the war. Off the back of years of hardship, a sort of euphoria of promise, a collective purpose manufactured and manipulated by the Nazis.
But Hilde isn’t swept up by it, not in any conscious or cerebral way, she tells us she found the rallies boring.
There are a small handful of incidents where the war seems to truly touch her: Jewish friends that disappear from her life, her home being destroyed by a bomb and feeling shaken by the ferocity of one of Goebbels speeches she’s been sent to record.
But if you are looking for political commentary from Hilde you won’t get it, instead, she paints a workmanlike picture of office life and the occasional portrait – rather than insight – of Goebbels and his family from ‘behind the scenes’.
She doesn’t seem conflicted by her work in the propaganda department even when asked to massage figures on press releases. There is no apparent dilemma, fear or guilt, at least none that can be perceived.
In fact, Smith’s delivery becomes more assured the deeper into the story she gets.
A German Life subtly asks important questions about culpability and responsibility.
Is Hilde’s low-level administrative work for one of the most senior Nazis a war crime?
Naive or dismissive?
Did the relatively comfortable life that her job afforded her, make her naive to what was going on and her part in it, or make it easier for her to dismiss?
Was she just a silly young woman incapable of questioning and does that make her complicit?
The judgement is left to the audience and you find yourself raking over any nuance in tone, detail or omission in order to make up your mind.
Yes, it was a treat to see Smith perform but it’s actually the play that lingers more in my mind and that is as it should be.
A German Life is at the Bridge Theatre until May 11, is 90 minutes without an interval and I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
You might also like to read:
From the archives – an encounter with Ben Whishaw.
Fringe theatre review – Funeral Flowers, Bunker Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
Theatre thoughts – Two Olivier Award winners I’m particularly chuffed about.
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