Q&A with Christian Krönes and Florian Weigensamer

Directors of the film A German Life

Brunhilde Pomsel was Joseph Goebbels’ secretary. She was born in 1911, experienced virtually the entire 20th century. How did she become your interview partner?

We came across Brunhilde Pomsel whilst doing research on a different matter and immediately saw this as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ chance to portray one of the last contemporary witnesses who had been actively involved at the centre of the National Socialist power apparatus. It soon became clear that she had all the potential required for a story about her alone. During the preliminary discussions it quickly emerged that, despite her age, she was very clear and alert, and a good storyteller as well. When it came to her memories it was impressive how many of the details she could recall.

What was your starting point? Did you only discuss with her the period when she was active in the innermost circles of power under the Nazi regime, or were you also interested in her whole life as a witness of events over such a long period?

We focused on the few decades when a functioning society went completely off the rails. It bears a remarkable similarity to our own times. The economic downturn, which was followed by mass unemployment, caused society to break apart at the seams and only a decade later ended in one of the greatest catastrophes of humankind. The time leading up to that period is interesting, too. Brunhilde Pomsel also talked about her childhood, and from that you could see how children were brought up in those days. The blind obedience, the refusal to allow orders to be questioned in any way – of course those attitudes were exploited later. She ended up in such close proximity to Goebbels completely by chance. She wasn’t a supporter of the Nazis; we believe her about that. She was unpolitical. That in itself is a powerful accusation. Being so close to the centre of power made her a fellow traveller, and her refusal to analyse what was going on, her focus solely on her own life, became particularly interesting. Extreme periods like that also show up people’s true attitudes.

Today’s ‘spirit of the age’ is reminiscent of that sad past. The economic crisis has not gone unfelt. People are seriously worried about their wealth and prosperity. Then a wave of refugees came to Europe and within a very short period of time the right wing parties in all affected countries gain strength and calls for a strong leader are heard. Barbed-wire fences are being erected all over the place. The difference, this time, is that it is not just a country that has undergone a shift to the right, but a whole continent. The really worrying thing is that we seem to have learnt very little from our recent past.

An older woman sits alone in a darkened kitchen, her elbow leaning against a table
Maggie Smith in A German Life

Are you more interested in discovering the extent to which a process of self-reflection also takes place in a person with this background story than in documenting details and memories from the centre of power?

For us, it was never a matter of Brunhilde Pomsel’s personal guilt or innocence. It was far more the more general issue of personal responsibility and morality that was important to us. We certainly didn’t set out to expose and dismantle an incorrigible die-hard. That would be too simple. What appealed to us was the unique opportunity to encounter someone who unites these historical dimensions: the First World War, the Nazi regime, working together with Goebbels, being a Russian prisoner of war… right up to the present day. We were never concerned with her personal guilt or with exposing her as a Nazi. We were also interested in confronting the audience with the question of how quickly people can become involved in something. What matters is less the process of self-reflection in hindsight than the essential question of when the moment comes that a society as a whole has to rise up and act.

Brunhilde Pomsel was very intelligent and likeable. You follow her through part of her development, and inevitably you reach the point where you have to say to yourself: probably I would have ended up like that as well. You can’t get away from her perspective; she just led a completely normal life. And although you can hope you might have acted in a certain way in such a situation, you can never be sure what you would really have done.

Brunhilde Pomsel was truly honest and credible. Her stories show that. She didn’t try to make things look better than they were and she didn’t show any false remorse, which is all too often the case with witnesses of the period. They know what is expected of them. Pomsel was always authentic.

Her story demands from the audience an honest reply to the question: which moral principles would you have sacrificed in order to gain rapid promotion and a higher salary? The viewer is invited to deliberate on this issue: how effective would our own moral compass be?

Did Frau Pomsel say a lot about Goebbels, or perhaps less than you had expected?

She never talked about events involving third parties, you only have the personal encounters. There were a lot of these personal stories. But they represented a problem for us, because there is the danger with stories like that that you get to know Joseph Goebbels rather than Frau Pomsel, and that’s something we were determined to avoid. One of the challenges of this project was to involve Goebbels without giving him too much space. The space was intended for Brunhilde Pomsel.

Her memories came back to life: All that was long forgotten or that lay buried in the subconscious mind, all that was suppressed all this time. Life under Nazi domination. We were certainly also aiming to reflect the to-and-fro within her own character. We approached the story of Frau Pomsel from a subjective perspective without objectifying.

April 2019

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This article was originally published in the production‘s programme.

Photos by Helen Maybanks.