The Last Stage: a masterpiece of early Holocaust cinema

One of the first films about the experience of the Nazi camps is also one of the best: it deserves to be far more widely known.

The Last Stage (1948)
  • The Last Stage is streaming now on Mubi.

When I read the description of Wanda Jakubowska’s film The Last Stage (1948, Ostatni Etap in the original Polish), I couldn’t quite believe it: a feature film, set in Auschwitz-Birkenau, filmed on the grounds of the former concentration camp in 1947, written and directed by former prisoners. I saw it at the 2020 Berlinale, where a newly restored version was making its world premiere.

Jakubowska had begun to think about how she was going to make a film about Auschwitz before the camp was liberated – in fact, she said it was the idea of telling the world what had happened there that helped her to survive. Jakubowska wasn’t Jewish, but the film’s protagonist Marta Weiss, and Marta’s real life counterpart Mala Zimetbaum, were.

The Last Stage follows Marta from the moment she and her family are rounded up on the streets, through her arrival at the camp, where she is separated from her family, to her life in the camp. Like Zimetbaum, Marta is forced to serve as an interpreter in Auschwitz-Birkenau: she helps other prisoners as best she can, organises resistance, and ultimately engineers a daring but doomed escape.

The Last Stage (1948)

What we now think of as tropes in Holocaust films weren’t tropes in The Last Stage: the sadistic guards, heroic resisters and bleak landscapes we expect in films set in concentration camps all originated there. It wasn’t just that Jakubowska was the first to set a feature in a concentration camp; the power of her work also comes from its authenticity and artistry. In Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), the Nazi guards speak English with fake German accents: in The Last Stage, every character speaks their native language (Polish, Russian, German or French). Jakubowska wanted a film that approximated a documentary: she wanted the audience to know what she heard, saw and experienced in the camp.

The cast included residents of Oświecim (the Polish name for Auschwitz), the town surrounding the camp, along with Red Army personnel, German prisoners of war and concentration camp survivors, who knew exactly how prisoners there would look and act. Costumes included real concentration camp uniforms and some of the cast lived in the former camp barracks. Because many of the actors were Polish speakers, German dialogue was partly voiced by German actors post production.

The Last Stage was widely screened soon after its release. In 1948 it premiered in Paris, was nominated for a Grand International Award at the Venice Film Festival and won the Crystal Globe at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The following year, the Times Film Corporation released it in the United States, where it won the New York Film Critics Circle Award. And in 1950, it was awarded a Bafta for Best Film from Any Source. In Poland’s list of box-office successes between 1945 and 2000, The Last Stage is at number 30; it was seen by more than 7.8 million people there.

But in most of the world, the film slipped into obscurity. There are many reasons why: it appeared decades before there was widescale interest in depictions of the Holocaust, it was a film centred on women during a time when men’s heroism was celebrated, it was an explicitly pro-communist film released at the start of the Cold War.

For more than 50 years, ghosts of The Last Stage appeared in other films. In Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog (1955) and George Stevens’s The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), fragments from it were inserted, uncredited, with the implication they were documentary footage. Alan J. Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice (1982), Schindler’s List and Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker (1964) all include echoes of Jakubowska’s concentration camp depictions.

Jakubowska went on to make 13 other features before she died in 1998 – two of them set in concentration camps – but none had the same impact that The Last Stage did. Her work, seen as too ideological in later years, has recently been reassessed from a feminist perspective. When Poland’s National Film Archive and Tor Film Production restored The Last Stage, there was no original negative to work with: they had to use a duplicate negative supplemented by acetate prints.

The Last Stage was one of a number of films about the Holocaust that I viewed when I was trying to understand my father’s story of his years as a refugee and concentration camp survivor, trying to understand what people expected of him. I was used to films where victims were in the background, there to edify a protagonist like Schindler in Schindler’s List or Stingo in Sophie’s Choice. Those films made me feel like nothing. The Last Stage accords respect and dignity to the prisoners, shows them as complex human beings, puts them at the centre of the narrative. Though flawed, it makes me wonder what a body of work about the Holocaust created by survivors would look like.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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