The Theatreguide.London Review
A German Life
Bridge Theatre Spring 2019
Drawing on a
documentary film about a 106-year-old German woman, playwright
Christopher Hampton has given Dame Maggie Smith the gift of a role so
irresistible that the 84-year-old actress broke an announced
retirement from the stage.
And Dame Maggie in turn
gives us the
immeasurable gift of being able to watch her alone onstage for nearly
Let me be absolutely
clear about this – the primary
virtue of A German Life is as a vehicle for Maggie Smith. Still, I do
have to talk a little about the script itself.
only claim to the world's attention is that she was for a few years a
stenographer-typist in Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry.
own account she had little contact with Goebbels, knew little inside
information or gossip about the Nazis, and didn't even pay much
attention to the documents she transcribed and typed.
But in that
ignorance lies the play's power, because Christopher Hampton makes
clear – and Maggie Smith makes believable – that the lack of
attention was deliberate, if not conscious, and didn't start when she
went to work for the Nazis.
Much earlier, when
friends started losing their jobs, leaving Germany or just
disappearing, she saw no pattern. When her brothers joined the Nazis
all she noticed was the stylishness of their brown shirts.
for the Nazis because they had the most colourful posters, a mass
rally was just a lot of men with body odour, and she knew about the
concentration camps but accepted the story that they were benign
In this portrait of one
woman Hampton offers to
explain one of the Twentieth Century's greatest mysteries – how the
German people let it all happen.
He shows us what Pomsel
faces near the end of her monologue – 'We didn't want to know.'
Maggie Smith's challenge
is to make this potentially distasteful
character both believable and sympathetic enough for us to listen to
her. And she uses her actor's sensitivity and a lifetime of
experience and accumulated technique to do it.
It is Smith's
inflection as Pomsel recalls that Berlin under the Nazis was 'a
civilized, well-organised city' that makes the line chilling without
She can with the most
subtle pause or phrasing
make what seems like a straight line – someone gave 'a completely
uninteresting speech' – into a joke or what was intended as a joke
– Goebbels' aides stayed so close to him we called them his
underpants – sound sinister.
motionless in a set
that gradually disappears into darkness as she creates a sense of a
real woman, a whole nation and a world with just Hampton's words,
Smith gives a master class in acting.
A German Life was sold
its complete limited run before it opened. It might transfer and it
should be recorded for television.
But make no mistake – for all the script's strengths, this event is all about something she told us several years ago we would never see again, Maggie Smith live on stage.
Receive alerts every time we post a new review