Screenwriter-playwright Christopher Hampton, who won an Oscar for “Dangerous Liaisons” and was Oscar nominated for “Atonement,” has penned a screen version of his one-woman play “A German Life,” about the life of Brunhilde Pomsel, the infamous secretary of Nazi Joseph Goebbels. Maggie Smith is set to reprise the role she played to great acclaim at The Bridge Theatre in London’s West End, with leading stage and opera helmer Jonathan Kent to make his feature film debut.
“A German Life” is based on a series of interviews that Pomsel gave when she was 103. The plan was to take the play to Broadway, which was curtailed by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
“What with COVID, Maggie decided that she didn’t really want to go back and do it again on stage, which was a great shame because it meant that an enormous number of people hadn’t seen it and her great performance,” Hampton told Variety.
Hampton turned to cinema as a solution. “What I’ve been doing is writing it as a screenplay about this woman in her retirement home in 2013 talking about her life. The film script was more difficult to write than the stage play. Sometimes she looks out the window and sees characters, but otherwise, it’s all just her through the course of the day talking about her memories.”
The long-standing relationship between Smith and Kent has made him the prime candidate to direct the film.
In a busy lockdown period, Hampton has also finished his long-gestating stage play about Jimmie Lee Jackson, the African-American civil rights activist and a deacon in the Baptist church in Alabama. On Feb. 18, 1965, while participating in a peaceful voting rights march, Jackson was beaten by Alabama State police and then fatally shot.
“The death of Jimmie Lee Jackson led to the Selma to Montgomery marches,” states Hampton. “In 2010, the policeman was finally tried and sentenced to six months in jail. I’ve been working on this on-and-off for some time. I went to Alabama four or five years ago, while the guy who killed Jackson was still alive. Finally, after doing all this research, I wrote it this summer, and it turned out to be sort of unpleasantly relevant [with the Black Lives Matter demonstrations].”
Hampton was speaking to Variety in advance of delivering a masterclass at the Cairo International Film Festival, which runs Dec. 2 to 10. The Egyptian festival opens with Florian Zeller’s adaptation of his own play, “The Father,” which Hampton co-scripted alongside the director. “The Father” features a towering performance from Anthony Hopkins and puts us in the mind of someone who has dementia. Olivia Colman, Olivia Williams, Rufus Sewell and Imogen Poots co-star.
The collaboration between Zeller and Hampton began in 2014. Hampton recalls, “I went to Paris to see Zeller’s play, ‘Le Père,’ which was running there then with Robert Hirsch in the lead role. And I was bowled over. I met Zeller at the theater and said this play is amazing. I’d love to translate it to English.”
“La Père” was adapted by Philippe Le Guay into the French film, “Floride,” in 2015, starring Jean Rochefort and Sandrine Kiberlain. Hampton’s English adaptation, which began in a 100-seat provincial theater in Bath, England became a huge international hit when it transferred to the West End. “People were gripped in a way we couldn’t necessarily predict, except that was what I felt when I first saw it,” says Hampton. “So why shouldn’t anybody else feel that way.”
The film, like the play, starts as a realistic story about Anthony, a cantankerous older man who’s losing his faculties and his daughter is kind of desperate to know what is best to do with him. Suddenly, about 10 to 15 minutes in, everything lurches off into a whole new register. Hampton explains, “You realize that what Florian has done is to look at the problem [dementia] through the victim’s eyes, and reproduces in some sense the kind of confusion and the horrors that the guy is feeling himself.”
Hampton won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for his work on Stephen Frears’ “Dangerous Liaisons.” There is a touch of Valmont in the way that the audience realizes that Anthony’s perception of reality is skewered. “It’s certainly true that both these characters live their lives by what they believe to be true and then isn’t,” says Hampton.
The screenwriter argues that adapting “The Father” for the silver screen was more difficult than translating the play from French to English. He worked very closely with Zeller on this adaptation. “I was sort of guided by Florian because he was going to direct the film and it’s his play. So I was just trying to serve him as much as possible. What he wanted was to be very simple and continually throw the audience off-balance and have everything very subtle.”