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Theatre review: Dame Maggie Smith’s quiet genius in A German Life

Formidable clarity:
Dame Maggie Smith as
Brunhilde Pomsel PICTURE: HELEN MAYBANKS

REVIEW

A German Life

Bridge Theatre, London ★★★★✩

THIS is the first time Maggie Smith has been on stage for 12 years and it may be her last: Britain’s arguably greatest living actor is 84.

Yet Smith gives not the slightest hint of being near the end of her stage career in Christopher Hampton’s one-woman show, based on testimonies given by 102-year-old Brunhilde Pomsel to a German documentary company in 2013, in which Pomsel recounted a life unremarkable in every respect save for one thing: she had been a secretary to Joseph Goebbels during World War II.

Amid the comfort of a nursing home where Pomsel would die not long after, Smith navigates with quiet but formidable clarity the equivocations of testimony and memory. This is no firecracker monologue: Smith, in one of her most pared-down performances ever, emphasises the banal truth of Pomsel as simply a woman living through extraordinary events.

The contradictions of personal narrative are on full display. Pomsel weeps at Kristallnacht yet glows at the memory of the night she went to dinner at Goebbels’s house. She mourns the fate of her Jewish friend, who died at Auschwitz, yet doesn’t square her death with her job working for the Nazi propaganda office.

Jailed after the war, Pomsel used the same showers at the requisitioned Buchenwald that were used to gas the Jews. But she feels no guilt. She didn’t know about the camps, she says. In this carefully unsensational show, Smith powerfully makes the culpability of Pomsel’s ignorance — the justification of ordinary people who choose not to look — our guilt, too.