All of us think we’d be brave in the face of evil, but would we, really? Or would we simply get on with our lives?
That’s the central question at the heart of A German Life, which comes to the Canberra Theatre from May 11, starring Robyn Nevin in a tour de force solo role.
Nevin, one of Australia’s most accomplished actors, plays Brundhilde Pomsel who spent the war as Joseph Goebbels’ secretary.
She was at the heart of Nazi power but emerged from the rubble of Hitler’s bunker waving a white pillowcase to Russian troops and claiming to have known nothing, really, about what took place.
There is no regret and no remorse because Pomsel stuck to her work, didn’t pay close attention and wasn’t directly involved in any decisions. Even the disappearance of a close Jewish friend didn’t trouble her – Pomsel assumed that her friend had gone to a re-education camp and would return soon.
It’s a fascinating premise and even more fascinating for the fact that it’s true. Pomsel was the subject of a remarkable documentary made when she was 103.
During 30 hours of interviews and 235 pages of testimony recorded for the documentary, she describe herself as “a stupid and politically disinterested nobody from a simple background” who knew nothing about the Holocaust until she was released from the Buchenwald prison camp in 1950
The play is a challenge for Nevin on many fronts. It’s 90 minutes of solo dialogue interrupted occasionally by cello music or news reel.
Nevin says she had to adapt her body to that of a very old woman and accurately gauge the energy she needed to hold the audience.
“I learned how creaky the seats are as people leaned in to hear, but also the absolute stillness when we got it right,” she said.
“I just learned the words and said it out loud. You just have to accommodate the contradictions – they’re in all of us. You can know someone or have confidence in them until you learn something quite disturbing or puzzling. Then you weigh up if you want to continue with that relationship.
“It’s not up to me to judge her. You make a contract with the audience to sit in the dark and they make the judgements, not me.”
Nevin said she felt a responsibility to portray Pomsel as honestly as she can in all the grainy shades of grey the words offer.
The play was a huge hit at the Adelaide Festival where Nevin said that people of German heritage and background found it, on many levels, deeply distressing but also important.
“It’s a warning play,” she said.
“I first read in 2019 when President Trump was talking constantly about fake news and alternative facts. I found that so hard to process – I was horrified by the spin, the propaganda.
“We are all subjected to it but we just don’t realise the extent. It’s like the boiling frog metaphor.”
Pomsel admitted that she had been captured by propaganda. She believed until the Russians arrived in Berlin that Germany was winning the war.
“Her accounts are quite free of any sense of the horror of what she’s talking about, partly because it seems she was unaware,” Nevin said.
She reflects on the original documentary film maker who said he both despised Pomsel’s lack of any guilt or responsibility and liked her as a person at the same time.
The play, she said, is very wearing to perform because the emotions within it are not released. There is grief, confusion and denial, all bubbling together in a suppressed stew, a messy mix that Nevin says is a huge challenge to perform.
“I just do it – I go right through and I run off saying ‘Oh my God, Oh my God’. The release and relief is huge afterwards. I feel as if my adrenaline is rushing for the entire time.
“The thing so frightening at a time when we have this huge division down the middle where both sides are as definite in their certainty as the other. There’s no civility or debate or conversation. Nobody is listening to the other side.
“We need to be so vigilant, to see so clearly what’s going on all around us.”