Absent from the stage for a dozen years but visibly dominant as Violet, dowager Countess of Grantham, the sparkling jewel in the crown of all six series of TV’s Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith makes a triumphant return to the boards as the real-life Brunhilde Pomsel in Christopher Hampton’s docu-drama A German Life.
Despite her name, there is nothing Wagnerian about this Brunhilde. The daughter of a working-class German family, she was born in Berlin in 1911, and after leaving school at 15 she developed an impressive skill for shorthand, which secured her a job as a secretary to a Jewish insurance broker. After two years employment, the broker refused to pay her what her father thought she was worth (100 marks a month), so she left.
At this point she met her first boyfriend, Heinz, and his Nazi friend Wulf, who offered her one mark an hour to take dictation for a memoir he was writing. Although Pomsel claimed she never discussed politics with her family and couldn’t remember whether she helped vote the Nazis into power, her life soon became inextricably linked with the Party. Because of her shorthand skills, she found a job in the press department of the Third Reich’s Broadcasting Corporation, followed by an even more prestigious posting as one of Joseph Goebbels’s secretaries in the Ministry of Propaganda.
Though she insisted she “couldn’t care less” about politics, she officially joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Although she claimed it to be “the best time of my life,” she was certainly aware of the difficulties facing the Jews. “Upheaval” was the word she used. Jews in top positions at the Broadcasting Corporation were summarily thrown onto the streets or sent to concentration camps. The woman who did her laundry lost her shop and disappeared. The horrors of Kristallnacht didn’t go unnoticed. But it wasn’t until the end of the war that she learned that one of her closest friends, Eva Lowenthall, had been murdered at Auschwitz in January 1945.
After the liberation in 1945, Pomsel was sent by the Russians to Buchenwald concentration camp, where she spent five years as a prisoner in conditions admittedly less brutal than anything the Jews and other political prisoners experienced there under the Nazis.
The question at the heart of Hampton’s 100-minute play – an adaptation of a 2016 German documentary, Ein Deutsches Leben, as well as 30 hours of interviews Pomsel gave to a group of Austrian filmmakers a year before she died at age 106 – is to what extent was she in denial about the Nazi’s atrocities towards the Jews? Her admission that she felt no guilt about the Holocaust belongs to the old adage that there is none so blind as those who do not want to see. Yet her occasional throwaway comments about Jews and money, or her naive insistence that she couldn’t differentiate between the various ethnic groups at the 1936 Olympics, sit queasily on the ears. Pomsel’s moral ambiguity is best summed up when, talking of some of the evil things that were happening in Germany, she says, “We didn’t want to know about them. We really didn’t.”
But is it really possible to work for Goebbels and mix with other high-ranking Nazis without knowing about the Holocaust? It’s a question invariably asked of many German citizens throughout the war and, as in the case of Brunhilde Pomsel, a moral conundrum too complex for many of them to address full on.
Though Pomsel insists she does not feel guilt, as interpreted by Smith, she certainly felt pain. At the same time, she leaves you in no doubt about her love for Berlin in the mid-30s, her enjoyment of the people with whom she mixed and the security of a hefty salary every month.
The play is full of deep ambiguities, and these are expressed (or excused) in a calculated, rather vague, stumbling manner characteristic of the elderly. Smith is brilliant at this, and I have to admit there were times during the performance I attended where, thanks to her impeccable timing, it was impossible to tell whether some of the lines she fluffed (at least according to the printed text) were deliberate or not.
For an actress whose trademarks are a rather nasal twang that excavates irony where none exists, a rather flamboyantly expressive use of her hands and an uncanny ability to turn everything she says into a wisecrack or a put-down, her quiet, calculatedly hesitant performance, unflashily delivered throughout from a chair in a small Munich kitchen (the set is by Anna Fleischle), isn’t so much a revelation – she is after all, one of our greatest actors – so much as a rich, detailed study of a conflicted woman attempting to come to terms with cataclysmic events 86 years after they happened. If this is the last time we are to see Smith live on sage, it is a mesmerising climax to an amazing career.
Given her matchless talent and natural dramatic (and comedic) instincts, it is difficult to know just how much Jonathan Kent’s low-key direction, heavily reliant on Jon Clark’s sombre lighting, has contributed to this indelible theatrical experience. Not that it matters. Either way it is a night to remember.