'A German Life': Theater Review

Courtesy of Helen Maybanks
Maggie Smith in 'A German Life'
A quiet but immensely powerful perfomance.
5/11/2019

Maggie Smith returns to the London stage after a 12-year absence in Christopher Hampton's single-character drama about a former secretary to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

Viewers who saw Roger Michell's documentary Tea With the Dames (released outside the U.S. as Nothing Like a Dame), which records a weekend get-together among old friends Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith, are likely to come away with the impression that, like many actors of their generation, they vastly prefer stage to screen. Smith herself even went so far as to confess that she never bothered to watch much of Downton Abbey and spent most of her time on the set of the Harry Potter movies competing with Alan Rickman over who could make the best shocked or stern face for their innumerable reactions shots.

So it's a pleasure to see Smith, now 84 years old, entirely in her element, and back on stage after a 12-year absence. (Her last theater gig was playing the enigmatic title role in the London premiere of Edward Albee's The Lady From Dubuque.)

With the one-woman play A German Life, written by Christopher Hampton and directed by Jonathan Kent, Smith lays down yet another graceful, elegantly arranged performance atop a storied theatrical career, like a bouquet upon a monument — albeit a bouquet with a deliberately, carefully placed deadly spider at its center. Although there are moments of piercing emotional intensity, this is, however, a quiet, delicately modulated work, naturalistic and simple and all the more powerful for it, that honors its origins.

While working on another project entirely, a quartet of German and Austrian filmmakers (Christian Kroenes, Olaf Mueller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer) encountered Brunhilde Pomsel, a then-102-year-old woman in a retirement home, who had once been Joseph Goebbels' secretary at the Ministry of Propaganda under the Third Reich. Seizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to record a key piece of oral history, they interviewed Pomsel and created a 107-minute documentary, shot entirely in ultra-high-def black-and-white, in which she recounts her life story.

Using a complete transcript acquired from the filmmakers of what was said, and allowing himself some artistic license, Hampton — a writer known for his literary adaptations and biography-based dramas on stage and in film (see, for instance, his Freud-vs.-Jung play The Talking Cure and its film version, A Dangerous Mind) — has crafted a subtle, insightful work that channels Pomsel's voice but still has a discernible dramatic shape.

Perhaps some of the details were invented by Hampton, and without having read the full transcript or seen the film it's hard to know if, for example, Pomsel really did have an older Jewish lover who died before the Nazis could get him in Amsterdam. But thanks to the writing and Smith's textbook-perfect, spontaneous-seeming performance, this too-good-to-be-true detail feels entirely credible.

Smith so fully inhabits the character one might almost think, if this were a less professional actor, that the hesitancies and pauses and backtracks were performance stumbles over lines. But every repeated phrase and stutter appears deliberate, suggestive of a woman struggling with her memory to find the right words. Repeatedly, she puzzles over how much she's forgotten, and yet some moments from the past are clear as Kristellnacht, a harrowing memory for her. Sometimes she holds her spectacles to her mouth while she thinks, the way a nun might hold a crucifix.

Guilt is a very complex concept here. Pomsel avers that she didn't know what was happening to the Jews being taken away to concentration camps, and repeatedly she describes herself (and sometimes other acquaintances) as stupid. "You can't make me feel guilty," she says. "Nor do I buy all that crap about the guilt of the German people. We were guilty of stupidity." But is that just polite self-denigration or a protective strategy? And does Pomsel really believe it when she adds, "Mind you, nowadays, 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."

Smith delivers those lines with a totally straight face, pausing for the inevitable rueful laughs from the audience. Oddly enough, it's justified at this point, although there were plenty of moments on the night I saw the show where people giggled almost inappropriately, as if primed to think, based on past experience with earlier characters she has played, that every utterance out of Smith's mouth here is some kind of bitchy bon mot. But her Pomsel is not some tart-tongued dowager — she's a fallible, blinkered, all-too-human fool.

The star remains seated entirely throughout on a chair in the set's simulacrum of a typical old people's home kitchen, with clutter on the table and dull wooden cabinets on the wall. But the lighting darkens minutely throughout — the show runs for an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission — until Pomsel sits in nothing more than a bright spotlight, like a ballerina dancing only with voice and those long expressive hands, carving shapes in the air.

Venue: Bridge Theatre, London
Cast: Maggie Smith
Playwright: Christopher Hampton, based on the documentary directed by Christian Kroenes, Olaf Mueller, Roland Schrotthofer and Florian Weigensamer
Director: Jonathan Kent
Set and costume designer: Anna Fleischle
Lighting designer: Jon Clark
Sound designer: Paul Groothuis
Presented by Bridge Theatre