|Robyn Nevin as Brunhilde Pomsel in A GERMAN LIFE|
Photo by James Green
A GERMAN LIFE
.Written by Christopher Hampton Starring Robyn Nevin. Catherine Finnis on cello. Directed by Neil Armfield Associate Director Chris Parker Composer Alan John Set & Costume Designer Dale Ferguson Lighting Designer Nigel Levings Sound Designer Jane Rossetto Co-produced by Adelaide Festival and The Gordon Frost Organisation. The Dunstan Playhouse. Adelaide Festival Centre. Adelaide Festival . February 19 – March 14 2021
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
|Catherine Finnis on cello and Robyn Nevin as|
Brunhilde Pomsel in A GERMAN LIFE.
Photo by Andrew Beveridge
The audience enters to the soulful sound of the cello. Cellist Catherine Finnis sits at the side of the stage apart from the small room in a Munich nursing home. It is clean and modest. A small number of reproductions hang on the white walls with white curtains. A tea trolley stands at the edge of the room and a table with a chair indicates the barest necessity. The sound of the cello wafts away as an old lady enters the room. She moves slowly to the table, carefully inserting her dentures and taking her cup of tea to the chair. Brunhilde Pomsel’s story begins.
As the eldest child and only girl in a family of five siblings, Pomsel learnt at an early age the demand s of responsibility and the injustice of blame. They were lessons that would carry throughout her life as a secretary with an exceptional talent for shorthand and would eventually secure her a position as a secretary in the office of Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels. Writer and translator Christopher Hampton’s enquiry posits the popular questions “ What would a person in this position have known and what responsibility would that person have had to declare and declaim the atrocities that were being carried out during the Nazi regime? Could this seemingly frail old woman have concealed or blinded herself to the horrific consequences of Goebbel’s position within the party. At one stage Brunhilde describes her astonishment at Goebbel’s manic transformation from a pleasant and good looking boss in the office to a ranting propagandist at the enormous rallies. And, naturally, there is the denial of knowledge of the existence of the gas chambers. It is only when she is imprisoned by the Soviets and showers in the very cubicles where gas was sent through the showerheads that she was sickened by the terrible truth of the “Jewish re-education camps”
Brunhilde’s frail and defenceless appearance in the nursing home belies her spirit and fuels the inquisition. And yet her account of her life and times belies any complicity in the evils of Hitler’s rise to power. She grieves the death of her dear friend Ulrike in the extermination camp or the monstrous poisoning of Goering’s children. Does she assume her deep sense of responsibility for these evil acts, or does she recognize that like the young Brunhilde, she must take the blame? When Brunhilde Pomsell died at the age of 106, ironically just days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, there was no such admission and there was possibly no need of an admission, but the intriguing aspect of Hampton’s play is not what we know from Brunhilde’s story, but what we cannot define as innocent or guilty, aware or ignorant, honest or deceitful. Brunhilde, like every citizen is entitled to a presumption of innocence.
Passion flares in Pomsel’s final comment and her utterance of damnation has a chilling effect. “There is no such thing as justice. There is only evil.” Her prophetic words are as much a reflection on a long life as a warning to the future. Their resonance in modern times has a profound impact. In the light of recent events in different parts of the world, Froml’s final comment, delivered with such force by Nevin reminds me of my history lecturer’s comments to a packed lecture theatre while reminiscing on his time in Belsen - “We must never forget.”
Robyn Nevin’s performance of Brunhilde Pomsel is magnificent, not that I expected anything less from a doyenne of Australian theatre. She completely inhabits the character with the ordinariness of a simple soul who lived through extraordinary and terrifying times. Under Neil Armfield’s astute and sensitive direction, Nevin’s timing is impeccable as Brunhilde reminisces, recollects, and judges with the acquired wisdom of hindsight, old age and long experience. She commands the enormous challenge of the ninety minute monologue with assurance, pausing only to reflect during painful moments of reflection and during the projected footage of the time accompanied by Finnis’s evocative playing of Alan John’s composition. Nevin is Brunhilde Pomsel and for the entire time that she is on the stage, her audience is rapt as much in her remarkably natural performance as in the content of her narrative and the disturbing moving images across the wall of Dale Ferguson’s compact and authentic set design.
Nevin and Armfield are an invincible tour de force of the theatre. Christopher Hampton’s intriguing and probing investigation of a simple soul confronted by extraordinary experience provides the inspiration. A superb production team brings Pomsel’s humble contemporary environment to life. Nigel Levings’ lighting and Catherine Finnis’s artistry on the cello sway the emotions. And through it all the archival videos, carefully selected to show the living manifestation of evil and its consequence provide a chilling backdrop to Nevin’s unforgettable performance of Brunhilde Pomsel and her German life.
REVIEWER'S NOTE: This review was posted after seeing the performance at the Adelaide Festival. I have re-submitted it after seeing the performance at The Playhouse of the Canberra Theatre Centre. The only difference was the more intimate setting, which added to the powerful impact of the performance and the play and the fact that the Canberra performance was slightly shorter. Otherwise performance, setting, accompaniment and audience response were very much the same as in Adelaide, a testament to the brilliance of this production and Robyn Nevin's performance. PW