«You can't get away from her perspective.»

Brunhilde Pomsel, 103 years old when the film was made, was the secretary of Joseph Goebbels. The documentary film A German Life by Christian Krönes, Florian Weigensamer, Roland Schrotthofer and Olaf S. Müller presents this unique witness of the 20th century, depicting her view of the present and her unpolitical life.

Brunhilde Pomsel was Joseph Goebbel’s secretary: she was born in 1911, making her one of the few people still alive who experienced virtually the entire 20th century. What was your critical approach when you began planning this film? How did she become your interview partner?

FLORIAN WEIGENSAMER: We came across Brunhilde Pomsel while we were researching another project. Joseph Goebbels was notorious for having many affairs; it is said that one of them involved the wife of an army officer. Apparently the officer slapped Goebbels across the face, and as a result he was transferred to punishment duty and killed shortly afterwards. During the course of this research we met Brunhilde Pomsel, and it became clear that she had all the potential required for a story about her alone. The aspect of her age was one of these factors, although of course that also raised the question of whether it would be at all possible to make a film with her. During the preliminary discussions it quickly emerged that 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.

This woman was born in 1911, so she experienced almost the entire 20th century; she is a living history book. 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?

CHRISTIAN KRÖNES: We focused on the few decades when a functioning society went completely off the rails. There is an incredible analogy with the events of the present day. We are now at the end of a crisis that hasn’t been completely overcome, and we're faced with large numbers of refugees, which is a cause of anxiety in many ways for people in wealthy Western societies. Suddenly right-wing slogans have become socially acceptable – with the difference that now it is not only one country but an entire continent that is drifting towards the right.

FLORIAN WEIGENSAMER: The time leading up to that period is interesting, too. Brunhilde Pomsel also talks about her childhood, and from that you can 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; I believe her about that. She was unpolitical. That in itself is a powerful accusation. Being so close to the centre of power makes her a fellow traveller, and her refusal to analyse what's going on, her focus solely on her own life, becomes particularly interesting. Extreme periods like that also show up people's true attitudes.

Brunhilde Pomsel's first sentence in the film isn't part of the story; it's a question: "So is it bad, is it egotistic, if people try to do something beneficial for themselves in the places they have been positioned…?" 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?

FLORIAN WEIGENSAMER: 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 viewer with the question of how quickly people can become involved in something.

CHRISTIAN KRÖNES: 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.

FLORIAN WEIGENSAMER: Brunhilde Pomsel is 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.

CHRISTIAN KRÖNES: The film 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?

In terms of visual techniques, the first thing we see – before Brunhilde Pomsel starts speaking – is an extreme close-up of her face and head. Very focused images that show the texture of the pores and tiny hairs in this 100-year-old skin, like a landscape. Why this first abstracting encounter with the person who will be the focus of the film?

CHRISTIAN KRÖNES: It was obvious to us that the film would invite comparisons with André Heller and Othmar Schmiederer’s Blind Spot, which was an incredibly important film. Our aim was on the one hand to create a contemporary document, but to combine this with an extraordinary cineastic approach. Brunhilde Pomsel has an amazingly fascinating face which reflects 100 years of life, a face you can look at for a very long time.

FLORIAN WEIGENSAMER: It isn't only superficially about her but also about something intrinsically human, primeval and archaic, an instinct which is much deeper...

CHRISTIAN KRÖNES: ... and also about an abstract encounter with an individual who said of herself at one point during filming: "I shouldn't really be here any more."

FLORIAN WEIGENSAMER: We wanted to take Brunhilde Pomsel outside time and space, and that's why we didn't talk to her in her own home. We didn't want the viewer to be a visitor; instead, we wanted this Frau Pomsel, who is present in every one of us, to push her way into the viewer’s mind.

Her efforts to come to terms with existence in the grey zone of the totalitarian regime must be representative of many German lives. Is the stark contrast created by the black & white of the film also an attempt to create a visual counterbalance for this aspect of the film's content?

CHRISTIAN KRÖNES: The black & white style gives the film an unmistakable visual aesthetic. This conscious reduction causes the content and the emotion to be foregrounded, intensifying and concentrating the attention. The black & white transports us to a time that has long been forgotten. Inside Brunhilde Pomsel memories are all around: things that have been forgotten, subconscious or suppressed aspects of life under the Nazis. The stylistic element supports her memories in a metaphorical sense, creating fluid transitions within the film as a historical document. The story of Brunhilde Pomsel is timeless, eternally valid, and the black & white aesthetic also lends the film a timeless character.

FLORIAN WEIGENSAMER: We were certainly also aiming to reflect the to and fro within her own character, the contrasts and contradictions. Black & white helps this concentration on the content. Nobody can escape on the cinema screen the close-ups of her face or the story itself; this literally forces the viewer to be attentive.

A GERMAN LIFE isn't purely an interview film; it's very clearly structured with archive material. When did it emerge that the conversations with Brunhilde Pomsel would require this counterbalance?

CHRISTIAN KRÖNES: It was clear from the very start that we didn't want to make a film based purely on interviews. Archive material was always going to be a component. The challenge was to make the best decision about the selection. During the research we also became aware that certain archive material has already been "used up". So much material has been cut for television use, reworked, placed in different context, with colour or music added. We discovered to our surprise how difficult it was to get hold of archive material in its original form.

Which archives did you approach?

FLORIAN WEIGENSAMER: We set to work with the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, which has collected a great deal of private material. Viewing 800 hours from that period was one of the most stressful aspects of the project. When you dream of Hermann Göring every night, things get really weird.

CHRISTIAN KRÖNES: Working with Stephen Spielberg's archive was a real stroke of luck, because the material stored there was accessible in its original form. These days archive material is often reworked in accordance with the visual habits of the general public, and that gives it a completely different force. Films from this era were always staged in a subtle way, with events really orchestrated for the camera. The point was also to sensitise the audience.

Quotations from Joseph Goebbels form a third structural element. What function do they fulfil?

FLORIAN WEIGENSAMER: Since Brunhilde Pomsel was his secretary, he had to be present in the film one way or another. We wanted to have him involved in a distant way, but we didn't want to show the "devil". He is only visible one time, and then in a completely unusual environment, where he isn't in uniform or exercising his official function: he's a "sophisticated" guest in the Café Florian in Venice. The quotations also have a function in terms of structure. A lot of them are from his diary, which was published just a few years ago. It's very illuminating to read it, although oppressive too. It confirms what Frau Pomsel tells us, that he was incredibly vain and only used his diary to present himself in the best light. It's very interesting to see how the great show he put on was consistently derived from the depths of his personality.

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

CHRISTIAN KRÖNES: It's possible to let her talk about Goebbels. But since she never talks 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.

FLORIAN WEIGENSAMER: One of the challenges of this project was to involve Goebbels without giving him too much space. The space was intended for Brunhilde Pomsel. And we wanted to avoid falling in the propaganda trap ourselves, because everyone is familiar with so much archive material that Goebbels himself staged very well. We really didn't want to allow him some sort of posthumous propaganda appearance in this film.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
Tranlsation: Charles Osborne
«She was unpolitical. That in itself is a powerful accusation.»