The hauntingly beautiful sound of a cello drifts through the theatre as Robyn Nevin shuffles onto the stage. It is a stark accompaniment to the story of Brunhilde Pomsel, a young woman who found herself at the heart of Nazi power.
'A German Life' began as a documentary film before British playwright Christopher Hampton fashioned the story into an extraordinary theatrical event based on the life and testimony of a skilled stenographer whose otherwise ordinary life was transformed when she became secretary to Hitler’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels.
In 2013, at the age of 102, Pomsel gave an Austrian film crew a vivid account of her time spent at the epicentre of power – as a witness to the rise and fall of the Third Reich via 30 hours of personal testimony.
The script is based on the transcriptions of the full interviews (rather than the film) and reveals a young woman fascinated by power but apparently oblivious to the horrors that were being perpetrated by the Nazis.
In this one-woman tour-de-force, Robyn Nevin’s portrayal of Pomsel is nothing short of brilliant. She shuffles about the set – a sparsely furnished room in a hospital – delivering a soliloquy with little to no emotion. There are times when her hands tremble and her voice quavers in an understandable German accent as she speaks about the horrors and deprivations of the Great Depression. At other times her hands sit motionless in her lap as the set is lit up with chilling footage from World War II Nazi Germany.
But throughout, she delivers her lines with enough certainty and clarity for them to be convincing, but vague enough to leave you somewhat uncomfortable and wondering whether Pomsel’s recollections are authentic or not.
Is her apparent political naivety a convenient excuse for her acceptance of the Third Reich’s treacherous crimes or was she simply an accidental participant who did her job, went home and spent most evenings fixing the ladders in her friends’ stockings?
Hampton does not seek to resolve these moral or ethical dilemmas and his script posits more questions than it answers. But, in an illuminating moment, Pomsel admits “we didn’t want to know, we really didn’t” giving credence to the maxim that the first casualty in any war is the truth. And there is another moment where she proudly claims “there was a huge file on the desk which I never, ever read”.
What Nevin’s portrayal captures so brilliantly is the conflicted nature of Pomsel’s role which, albeit minor, was pivotal in delivering Goebbel’s monstrous lies to the masses. Director Neil Armfield acknowledges there is a message and a notable parallel for contemporary audiences and warns that we should not be complacent in an era where ‘alternative facts’ are delivered as truths.
Indeed it is through Neil Armfield’s deft production and Nevin’s superb performance, we are transported to a time and place where deception was normalised and lies were repeated so frequently they became their own distorted reality.
’A German Life’ plays Queensland Performing Arts Centre until 13 June.