“Everything that is beautiful is also tainted, and whatever’s horrible also has its bright side. Nothing is black and white.” These words, at first glance a truism, become morbidly fascinating when spoken by Brunhilde Pomsel, the wizened former stenographer to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and subject of the award-winning documentary A German Life.
Maggie Smith brings her story imperiously to the stage, capturing the same defiant energy that made the 2016 film so compulsive. Brunhilde, a member of the Nazi party, is frank and unapologetic – she describes being swept up in the fervour of the fascist movement, her shorthand skills propelling her up the corporate ladder just as her Jewish friends were being shipped off to Auschwitz.
Alone on stage throughout, Smith speaks with childlike wonder as she describes handsome officers and snake-tongued propagandists. A poor girl from a working class neighbourhood, Brunhilde marvels at the fancy offices of the state TV channel in which she worked. She giddily recalls the electric atmosphere at the Brandenburg Gate as Hitler gave his infamous addresses, and swoons over meeting the young Goebbels for the first time. Hearing someone refer to these terrible men with anything but condemnation gives the dialogue a strange, illicit frisson.
Brunhilde builds slowly towards the climax of her tale, at first dropping only occasional hints about her culpability; her brothers being in the Brownshirts, being disowned by her Jewish friends, voting for the Nazis because “everyone else did”.
The production has the hushed, confessional tone of an Alan Bennett Talking Heads monologue. The figure on stage is alone and isolated, and as the evening progresses, the stage itself creeps almost imperceptibly forward, taking Brunhilde from the reality of her sitting room into the spotlit darkness of the public arena.
Smith is wonderful, delivering her lines with an apparent dodderiness that belies her perfect timing. Later scenes are heartbreakingly intense; her range is astonishing. By the end, you’re left with little sympathy for Brunhilde, but an incredible amount of respect for Smith.