A German Life at the Bridge Theatre marks a titanic return to the London stage for Dame Maggie Smith
“I don’t know whether God exists, probably not, but what certainly does exist is evil. And there’s no justice”
Just a quickie for this, even though Dame Maggie Smith clearly deserves more respect for her return to the London stage after 12 years away. A German Life takes the form of a 100 minute monologue that takes the breath away, not only in the technical skill and stamina for someone over the age of 80 but in the size and sensitivity of the subject matter at hand,
Smith plays Brunhilde Pomsel, a regular German woman whose work as a secretary took her through many employers, one of whom just happened to be the Nazi minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. As she reflects back on her life, there’s an appalling compelling account of everyday life in the midst of the rise of such a virulently extreme ideology as Nazism.
It’s a triumph of quietly ruminative acting – there are moments of silence when you don’t know if it is Smith or Pomsel who doesn’t quite know what to say next and it is to Smith and director Jonathan Kent’s credit that it simply doesn’t matter a jot which it is. She may not leave her chair in Anna Fleischle’s domestic design but you never once lose the grip of her attention.
And there’s something painfully aching about the way in Hampton’s script, adapted from Pomsel’s testimony in a documentary of the same name, slides around the awful, unpalatable truths of what she lived through. The Jewish friends that disappeared versus the rise in her salary, the thrill of voting versus the reality of rallies. To hear her talk about the concentration camps and equivocating about just how much she knew of what went on there is a masterclass in amibguity.
Thus A German Life is so much more than just an opportunity to see the extraordinary talent of Dame Maggie, it’s a chance to really reckon with our own moral responsibilities – would we stand up and be counted in the face of the rise of ugly nationalism and indeed fascism, could we? And years after the fact, how honest would we be about it. For all the protestations to the contrary, it’s the line “we didn’t want to know. That’s the truth” that feels like it speaks most to human nature.