In the 75 years since World War II ended, there have been countless films and plays focussing on the years 1939-1945 and their lasting effect on the world. A new play takes a fresh look at the subject, from the unique point of view of one woman who worked at the centre of the Nazi war machine, as private secretary to Hitler’s ruthlessly efficient Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, from 1942 to the end of the war.
Brunhilde Pomsel was born in 1911 in Berlin and grew up in Germany between the two world wars. A documentary made about her in 2016 inspired the play, A German Life.
Starring Robyn Nevin as Brunhilde Pomsel, A German Life starts a nationwide tour this week that will travel to Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane in 2021 and Sydney in 2022. MiNDFOOD chatted with Robyn Nevin AO about A German Life.
What is the play about?
It’s set in the room of a woman called Brunhilde Pomsel in Munich, who is very old. (I’m 80, but she’s really old). She tells the story of her life growing up in Germany and her association with the Nazi leadership – she is one of Joseph Goebbel’s stenographers. Then she is imprisoned by the Russians after the war. She takes some pleasure in the telling … until it gets difficult. She’s incredibly clear and doesn’t seem to have any gaps in her memory process. But then, the past is often closer to the surface when you are older.
What were the challenges taking on such a demanding role as the only character in a 90-minute production?
There is a cellist on stage with me making beautiful music but other than that, I am alone for the entire play. There are 10,000 words to learn. It’s gruelling; a huge mountain to climb. It’s physically difficult because I am adopting a shape that is not my own, and emotionally gruelling because I spend a lot of time trying to contain emotions – which is a lot more debilitating and difficult than expressing them.
Did inhabiting the character of Pomsel change your feelings about her role in the war?
The play made quite an impression on me but I take on no judgement; that’s unhelpful for the actor. I am there to deliver the character and after that, the audience will make their judgement. If the audience is profoundly engaged, I am grateful for it.
What do you hope audiences will take from this play?
I hope they take the message that sits very clearly within it, related to the dangers of the propaganda machine. People can be manipulated by any government as to what they want to believe. We need always to be reminded of this.
My mother-in-law is English – she talks about travelling to Germany as an exchange student and she remembers seeing the caricatures of Jewish people when she was out and about back then. If you are surrounded by that type of thing, the public view can very slowly change.
2020 was a difficult year for the arts in general. Have you found that good roles have become scarcer?
No, roles have not dried up for me. I didn’t work during COVID but I had a film that came out in 2020 [the Australian horror film, Relic]. It kept me busy but I didn’t get to go to the US to promote it because of COVID. Actually, I loved being at home. We have eight acres in the Southern Highlands of NSW [Nevin lives with long-time partner, actor Nicholas Hammond]. We have rescue horses and sheep and two Jack Russell dogs and a big garden on eight acres. It’s completely absorbing living here – in fact, it was hard to go back to work!
Do you prefer screen work or theatre?
When filming, the periods away from home are much shorter … and it pays more! Screen is less demanding but you miss direct contact with the audience. That can never be replaced.
A German Life
Canberra Playhouse: 11-16 May.
Brisbane Playhouse: QPAC: 2-13 June.
Melbourne Arts Centre Playhouse: 21 July-1 August