February 23, 2021

Adelaide Festival 2021 – Robyn Nevin is outstanding

A German Life
by Christopher Hampton
Co-produced by Adelaide Festival
and The Gordon Frost Organisation.
Dunstan Playhouse. Adelaide Festival Centre.

February 23. Tickets $ 30 – $109.
Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes. No interval.
Until March 14.

“I have forgotten such a lot,” concedes Brunhilde Pomsel, aged 102, “And then …things surge up into my mind. Things I can remember in the minutest detail.”

This happens when you get old, but in the case of Pomsel, the sweeping narrative of her long life includes her experiences at the epicentre of the German Third Reich. What she knows, and, perhaps, chooses to forget, still matters – and raises questions about the struggle between obedience and responsibility.

Interviewing her for an acclaimed Austrian documentary, entitled A German Life, the film-makers gathered 235 pages of transcription, much of which never made the cut. From that material, playwright Christopher Hampton assembled this compelling 90 minute monologue for the stage.

Like the clerical secretary, Traudi Junge, dutiful to Hitler even in the last days of the bunker (as depicted in the 2004 film, Downfall) Brunhilde Pomsel is a young, unworldly stenographer who ends up taking shorthand for Joseph Goebbels.

From the geriatric home where she lives, Pomsel describes her mid-teen life in pre-war Germany, then casually notes the rise of anti-semitism and Nazi dominance. But she also has a friend Eva, who is Jewish, and Pomsel works for Jewish employers. By 1933 she is employed at the Broadcasting Corporation and sees senior staff fired and sent to concentration camps.

Brunhilde is appalled watching Goebbels addressing a huge rally – ‘This quiet, elegant man we saw in the office, transformed into a demented midget.’ She sees things, but has no framework. Remorse breaks through when recalling the fate of the young martyr, Sophie Scholl, and Eva’s disappearance to Auschwitz.

Neil Armfield’s astutely understated production, premiering at the Adelaide Festival, is, as he says, “as much about our contemporary world as Hitler’s Germany.”

Dale Ferguson’s set, a functional room in an aged care facility, is warmly lit by Nigel Levings. Alan John’s introspective score (performed live by cellist, Catherine Finnis) combines with projected newsreel images of the Reich.

The extraordinary solo performance by Robyn Nevin brings Brunhilde fully into focus. In perfect accent, she captures her intelligence and ambition, but also her lack of agency as a young woman who, seated next to Goebbels at dinner, is utterly ignored by him. Nevin’s vivid, unsentimental portrait of Pomsel in old age is splendidly managed.

The play asks us the perennial question. What would we do in the face of tyranny? At what point would we act ? As Brunhilde said in 2013- “People don’t care. They watch all the dreadful things in Syria, then they switch off the TV and go out for dinner.“ A German Life is an uncomfortable challenge to our own time.

“Robyn Nevin is outstanding” The Australian. Online. February 24, 2021.

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