The life of Nazi party member Brunhilde Pomsel, the secretary of Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, is currently in the spotlight in two theatrical versions on the Hebrew stage.
Inspired by the 2016 documentary film A German Life, in which Pomsel agreed to speak about her experiences when she reached the age of 103, Riki Hayut created a one-woman performance titled You Talk, I Talk.
In it, she created a dialog between Pomsel and herself. Her version of Pomsel, who wears a blond wig and speaks with German-accented Hebrew, paints a distinct character of a German office worker in contrast to Hayut herself. Like Pomsel, Hayut shared aspects of her personal life with the audience.
Hava Ortman stars in a different adaptation of Pomsel’s life, called Secretary, directed by Ruthie Osterman, is a Hebrew adaptation of A German Life Christopher Hampton’s 2019 play.
A German Life had the great Maggie Smith performing the role of Pomself in London at the Bridge Theater. In England, Smith never moved from her wheelchair, it was the set that, slowly, shifted around her, so that during the final scene the audience found itself in the same space as the woman who confessed to being “a coward” by going with the general flow of the society around her.
Ortman, who gets up from her seat to type with a mountain of paper boxes lurking behind her, employs plain Hebrew, without any German traces. This, in turn, helps the audience feel Pomsel could be our neighbor, if not ourselves.
Both performances use the same materials, yet the artistic differences are striking. In one scene, Pomsel describes attending the 1943 Sportpalast Speech. In it, Goebbels introduced the German public to the concept of Totaler Krieg (total war). The term means both conducting warfare without moral consideration and the total subordination of German society to the war effort. Sold to the Germans as the “shortest path to victory” (“Totaler Krieg - Kurzester Krieg”), it failed.
When Hayut performs the scene, the German-accented, blond woman repeats the word like a mantra: “Totaler Krieg! Totaler Krieg!” as black and white footage of the historical speech flashes behind her, evoking the frenzy and the mania cultivated by the Nazi regime.
Ortman, who delivers the same scene, does it in an even, measured tone.
“The SS officer behind us noted we were frozen,” she said. “He tapped our shoulders and hissed: ‘Come on girls, clap!’ We did.”
A gifted actress, Ortman’s expression as she claps transmits the pitiful situation of being a lone, allegedly sane person, in a mad crowd.
In Secretary, the audience gets its emotional jolt with sound: Explosions and air-raid sirens are heard when Pomsel hides in a bunker before being captured by the Red Army.
With Ortman, we get more Pomsel. We learn that, after the war ended, she sought information about a Jewish friend. The woman was murdered in Auschwitz.
With Hayut, we get less Pomsel and more Hayut. She addresses the audience and asks us: “Pomsel bought that Jewish friend a pack of cigarettes, Hayut is always extra nice to the Arab worker who cleans her apartment building. How much are we willing to find out what is taking place to people we know who reside outside our comfort zone?”
In 1963 Hannah Arendt published Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. The work cemented the idea that, in large industrial societies, evil things can be done efficiently by creating a vast bureaucracy where everybody is simply doing their banal job.
The idea proved immensely appealing. It bypassed the need to explore the emotional, even mythic, aspects of Nazi ideology.
If Nazis really were drab men in glasses doing office work like Eichmann, or typists like Pomsel, their evil deeds have no theological meaning, no soul-depth.
This view had since been challenged by scholars who pointed out that at least some Nazis, such as Heinrich Himmler, were convinced they were truly re-creating an ancient Aryan civilization. One which would use Wewelsburg Castle for arcane initiation rites for SS officers and bring holy relics from Tibet to rejuvenate the race.
During a recent production of Tales from the Vienna Woods by Ödön von Horváth (Tel Aviv University Theater) this emotional force was skillfully delivered by Baseel Abu Jabal in the role of a Nazi student who licked his rifle in erotic abandon and danced with it on stage. A daring irrational act that Pomsel likely would never have allowed herself.
You Talk I Talk will be shown on Sept. 14, 8 p.m. and Oct. 19, 8 p.m. Tickets: NIS 70, Tmuna Theater, 8 Shontzino St. Tel Aviv. Secretary will be shown in Poland as part of the Lodz of Four Cultures Festival and then return to Jaffa Theater (10 Mifratz Shlomo). For info, (03) 518-5563