You made a first-class fool out of me

Christopher Hampton, A German Life (Directed by Jonathan Kent, Br/dge Theatre)

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I was going to London on the day that tickets for this went on sale and I did wonder whether the SouthEastern WiFi would be up to it. I was three thousand in the queue with fifty five minutes on board and got to check out just as we hit the tunnels around Stratford. I was lucky — this may well be the only time I get to see the legendary star of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads live.

It is the latter that this is closest to — the singular older woman, talking to the audience, in such a way that simultaneously we know more than her despite the fact that she is not telling us all she knows. Hampton has taken the life of Brunhilde Pomsel, a German stenographer and typist, active in German between and after the wars. I’ve not seen the model documentary, A German Life, but some of the material in a Guardian interview by Kate Connolly is echoed in the play.

After the First World War she had trained as a secretary, working initially for a Jewish insurance salesman and German officer veteran and then for a radio broadcaster, before being seconded to Goebbels’s propaganda unit. She is thus at the heart of Nazi fake news, aware of the vanishing of her Jewish friends and gay colleagues. She knows and does not know — they have been boycotted, they have been deported, they are being kept in camps. One particular friend’s fate is not discovered by her for sixty years.

But we know she has lied to the Russians about knowing Goebbels.

And yet, as she says, could she had done anything without being arrested? We hope that we would protest — we know what is necessary for evil to flourish, and she believes in evil if not in justice. She also tells us her memory is faulty. And that she was stupid, a silly girl, innocent of the politics.

Smith is alone on stage, for a hundred minutes, in the semi darkness of a post-unification German old people’s home. There are hints of a kitchenette, bookcases, a lamp or two, but she stays at a table, in one of her two chairs. There is a large space at the front of the thrust stage, suggesting space for movement beyond the gestured realism, but it is the floor of the set and Smith on it that slides, imperceptibly slowly, that moves towards the front row. You don’t see it coming.

Smith’s acting is deceptively realist — not the aping of other voices seen in My Name is Laura Barton — apparently stumbling on the words, speaking to us as if a friend, or maybe a journalist. Like one of Bennett’s women, we wonder if she is as naive as she appears, as innocent as she presents. At static as a Beckett character in sand up to her neck, she holds the stage for the length of a feature film. The horrors of Naziism are perhaps all the more shocking for being understated.

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