Facing facts: Robyn Nevin’s Holocaust epic sends a dark warning

Actress Robyn Nevin said the rise of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ had played a part in her taking on an exhausting one-woman show in the form of A German Life.

May 10, 2021, updated May 10, 2021
Robyn Nevin performing A German Life at the Adelaide Festival (Image: Andrew Beveridge)

Robyn Nevin performing A German Life at the Adelaide Festival (Image: Andrew Beveridge)

A German Life is based on the true story of Brunhilde Pomsel, a secretary in the Nazi Propaganda Ministry who insisted that she knew nothing of the horrors of the regime.

Pomsel worked as a skilled typist for the Nazi Party, working her way through the ranks to become Joseph Goebbels’ personal secretary until the party’s defeat in 1945.

The play is based on 30 hours of interviews Pomsel gave, aged 103, where she explained she did not know of the Holocaust despite altering facts on behalf of Goebbels.

Coming to work in the Propaganda Ministry almost by chance, Pomsel said she simply wanted a nice office job.

The play, written by Christopher Hampton and directed by Neil Armfield, is a 90 minute solo epic for Nevin.

She told InQueensland the performance is exhausting but the impetus to perform it arose from the current political climate and the rise of fascism in America and around the world.

“The most powerful thing about this play is the presence of propaganda. How do you know whether you have been conditioned by your leaders by your politicians, by your government? Unless you are assiduous in searching for the facts, how do you know?” she said.

“That is why I wanted to do the play, because I heard the phrase fake news and alternative facts for the first time in my life from Trump’s mouth and I couldn’t believe what he was saying. And when I read the play, I thought this is the warning.

“If people believe fake news and alternative facts we are in great trouble. There is a warning within the play that we’re on a slippery slope and we have to be vigilant, and either Pomsel wasn’t vigilant, or she gave no thought to the possibility of propaganda,” said Nevin.

“[Pomsel] says at one point ‘the Propaganda Ministry certainly worked on me’ because of her conviction right up until the end of the war, that they would win the war. She refused to believe, as did Hitler, for a long time, that the war was lost.”

Nevin said the performance, though draining and technically demanding, is a necessary one to bring to the stage.

“There is no catharsis because she controls her emotions very tightly and that containment occurs for 10,000 words,” she said.

“It is a relief, when the production ends, to stop doing her on stage. It is a very tough story and a complex one

“My role is to give life to the word of the woman and allow the audience to make their own judgments and decisions about how guilty she was or to the extent of her contribution.”

Robyn Nevin in A German Life, Adelaide Festival 2021 (Image: Andrew Beveridge)

Nevin told InQueensland in the preparation for the play, there was an acute sense of responsibility to Brunhilde Pomsel to portray her life as accurately as possible, allowing the audience to examine the truth of her story.

“The typical response to her is the surprise at her denial, or an incredulous response to the fact that she says she didn’t know what was going on.”

Nevin said the difficulty laid in the fact that Pomsel herself was disinterested in politics and never interrogated the actions of the Nazi Party, her loftiest ambitions were to work in an office.

“She wouldn’t have been the kind of thoughtful individual who would wonder about the possibilities or the existence of propaganda, even though she worked directly for Goebbels,” she said.

“There is an irony, which is difficult to come to terms with if you are looking at her objectively and wondering whether she knew.

“You have to reconcile the fact that she says she wasn’t responsible and yet she was fiddling the facts you know she was altering the statistics on behalf of the department.

“I sense that there is guilt there but I think it’s very complex because she is adamant in her denial while grief stricken through the loss of her Jewish friend.”

Nevin said Pomsel’s story serves as an example of the shades of grey in life that are difficult to comprehend and moralise but is ultimately serves as a reminder of the dangers of the slow creep of fascism.

“In her determination not to take on guilt she tried to make the events of her life black and white, but then slips into areas that are very grey, and across all the conversations that have been recorded of her, she shows the complexity of grief and guilt.”

A German Life begins at QPAC on June 2 and runs until June 13, for more information and tickets visit QPAC’s website. 

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