At the Theatre le Public in Brussels, the Belgo-French actress Jacqueline Bir is putting on an acting tour de force as Brunhilde Pomsel in Christopher Hamptons’ play A German Life. Based on a true story, Brunhilde invites the audience into her everyday life – a life that spans most of the 20th century. For the first time, ‘Pomseline’ articulates her memories and her work as a secretary in Berlin in the 1930s. She muses about her different employers from a Jewish insurance broker to working at the German National Radio and then for Joseph Goebbels in the Ministry for Education and Propaganda.
Brunhilde relates her story simply. A story where she rubbed shoulders with those at the centre of Nazi power. A silent life in the midst of an entire population that said nothing, a small actor among many who waited her 102 years to now explain to us, the audience, her life. Is this what she remembers or what she thinks she remembers – with the big question never quite answered: what did she know?
At the age of 87, Bir hands us a mirror and offers us a journey into the past and into ourselves – and she does so magnificently. With what is currently happening in Ukraine, one has the feeling that nothing has changed with many in Russia possibly asking themselves now the questions Pomseline took decades to ask herself.
Maggie Smith played this role in London when the play first opened a few years ago. It is worthwhile to see Bir taking on this role in Brussels.
(In French, until April 29.)
Reviewed by Diana Kanter