Made history: ‘A German Life’

By Miriam Cosic

Robyn Nevin’s performance as Goebbels’ secretary is mesmerising

Image © James Green

“After Kristallnacht, Germany was one gigantic concentration camp. Not that that excuses anything,” says Brunhilde Pomsel, a former secretary to German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels during World War Two. The sole character in Christopher Hampton’s play A German Life, showing at the Adelaide Festival, Pomsel is a conduit between the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany and the world today.

She remembers her life – the life of a “normal” German in those times – with clarity, though the play raises many questions as Pomsel provides us with the “facts”.  Was she really the naive young woman who did so well for herself on her secretarial skills and a bit of luck? Or does she hide from us – and maybe herself – her involvement with the terrible rise of fascism? Did many others share that naivety, or did most straight, conservative, able-bodied, ethnic Germans under the Third Reich actively encourage and celebrate the privileges it conferred on them?   

There are so many lessons to be taken from the performance. What parallels emerge with our era? The German people were guilty of stupidity, Pomsel says. “Nowadays,” she remarks at one point, “I don’t think people would be stupid enough to fall for the kind of nonsense we fell for. All that hot air – I don’t think you can get that past people anymore.” The rise of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte, Viktor Orban and leaders of their ilk may suggest otherwise.

Robyn Nevin’s performance as Pomsel was as mesmerising as it was demanding. From her light and convincing German accent (eat your heart out, Meryl Streep), to the stiff-bodied way she pottered about her aged-care bedroom, to the serviceable clothing, to the constant dabs with a handkerchief at watering eyes and moist mouth, to the momentary lapses of thought, Nevin drew us in.

The simplicity of her delivery, impeccably directed by festival co-director Neil Armfield, together with the simplicity of the set, provided an unimpeded engagement with the 90-minute monologue. A cheaply furnished institutional room took up half the stage; cellist Catherine Finnis provided a solo soundtrack from the other, darkened, half. Neither the room nor Nevin’s speech contained a hint of glamour. And yet the entire duration of the performance was spellbinding.

The play’s monologue is interspersed with clips from a documentary film of the same name by Christian Krönes, Olaf Müller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer. Both drew on a 235-page transcript of interviews with the real Brunhilde Pomsel, conducted in 2013 when she was 102. Her father had served in World War One; she had four younger brothers, and the family lived in the comfortable Berlin suburb of Südende. In the play, Pomsel recounts her childhood and teenage years, her father’s scepticism about her future (whether as mother or career girl), her training in secretarial skills after leaving school at 15 and her surprising adroitness with shorthand.

Her work with various businessmen, several of them Jewish, gave way to a job with the regime via her Nazi boyfriend. Her close friendship with a Jewish girl waivers and finally ends as the Nazis’ purpose becomes more evident – though never evident enough. She votes for the Nazis in 1932 but says she doesn’t in the next election. By 1939, she is working for Goebbels. She admires the elegance and seriousness he displays in private, and compares it with the “screaming midget” he becomes in his public addresses. She joined the Nazi Party only to qualify for the prestigious job, she says, detailing her rising salary levels with relish as she goes along.

She seems more appalled by the murder of Goebbels’ six children by the propaganda minister and his wife before they killed themselves – among the Nazi leadership’s many suicides at the end – than she is by the wholesale extermination of Jews, Gypsies, socialists, homosexuals and others deemed unacceptable by the regime. She reiterates how dreadful a mother must be to take her children’s lives. Her moral hierarchy raises yet another question: did she really not know the extent of Nazi brutality or has she crafted her memories in order to conceal that knowledge?

When Russian forces overran Goebbels’ bunker, Pomsel was arrested and sent to jail. She tells us she knew nothing about the war crimes and thought the extermination camps to which the Jews were sent were merely correctional facilities. She admits that when she found out about them after her release from Buchenwald, she was appalled to think she had been taking her showers in the same rooms in which wholesale murder was carried out.

Whether A German Life portrays how easy the creep of fascism becomes when citizens ignore politics or how subtly those citizens must hide their complicity from themselves, it is an unnerving parable for our times. Comparing the Trumpian era to the rise of Hitler sounds like overkill, but Pomsel’s story shows how subtly fascism arrived in Germany too.


A German Life runs until March 14 at Adelaide Festival. Miriam Cosic travelled to Adelaide as a guest of the festival.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

Image © James Green

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