Lost in the Movies: The Last Stage

The Last Stage

When Wanda Jakubowska entered the gates of the women's camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau as a political prisoner of the Nazis, she seized upon a goal that may have kept her alive in the months and years to come. Although she had joined the Polish Resistance early in World War II and been committed to the Left many years before that, this was not a political goal (at least not primarily). Jakubowska had also been a filmmaker for over a decade, founding the film group START and crafting experimental films throughout the thirties, climaxing with a feature film whose only print was destroyed during the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Inside the concentration camp, Jakubowska conceived the idea for her second feature even as she herself, not just her work, faced destruction. If and when the Nazis were defeated and Auschwitz was liberated, she would create a film about life in the camp. And so she did.

Partially crafted with other prisoners, who shared their stories with her during internment, and co-written with fellow survivor Gerda Schneider immediately after the war, The Last Stage is unique among Holocaust films. It is certainly one of the first, quite possibly the first, to depict a Nazi death camp. The movie was even filmed inside Auschwitz itself, as early as a year after liberation, and real uniforms were used instead of costumes. Despite the reality of the location - and the participation of many other survivors in the shooting - Jakubowska felt some elements had to be sanitized, noting that "the camp’s reality" of "human skeletons, piles of dead bodies, lice, rats ... were unbearable for the post-war viewer." It's unclear if she meant that the mores of the time would not accept such material on the screen, or if the sharp memories of these viewers, having borne enough already, did not need to be re-traumatized.

Nonetheless, the film makes rough viewing even for twenty-first century viewers accustomed to refuse and gore. Details of life in Auschwitz - to become the touchstones of later concentration camp films - all make their first appearance here: endless processions into the gas chambers, children whose toys are collected by smiling SS officers as they march off to death, newborns snatched from their mothers and immediately euthanized, families separated as soon as they arrive (never to see one another again), the new arrivals foolishly naive about what is in store, prisoners casually shot for the amusement of guards, nearly lifeless bodies thrown in ditches to slowly perish. The film casts a particularly harsh light on collaborators, the blockseniors, who are depicted as greedy, self-centered, and delusional traitors rather than (as in many other films) victims only slightly higher up on the totem pole than the fellow prisoners they torment.

Despite its probable influence, The Last Stage differs from latter-day depictions of Holocaust films, particularly recent ones, in many significant ways. We do not center our view on one distinct individual who guides us through camp life - instead moving about in an ensemble, with particular emphasis on three prisoners: Marta (Barbara Drapinska), a Jewish translator; Anna (Antonina Gorecka), a communist nurse; and Eugenia, a Russian doctor. All have positions of relative power and influence within the camp, but unlike the blockseniors, they use their responsibilities to help fellow prisoners. As authors Ewa Mazierska and Elżbieta Ostrowska note in the book Women in Polish Cinema, "Apart from being individuals, Eugenia, Anna, and Marta serve as symbols of the main enemies of fascism: Jewry, communism, and the East."

Indeed, The Last Stage also differs from later Holocaust films in de-emphasizing the centrality of Jews in the Nazis' extermination camp, essentially treating them as one group among many targeted by the Germans for extinction. While true in a sense, this could also provide a misleading portrait of Auschwitz, in which ninety percent of the prisoners killed were Jewish. Many commentators have noted this discrepancy, and the prominence of many non-Jewish characters reinforces it; nonetheless the majority of the movie's prisoners appear to be Jewish, and anti-Semitism is shown a particularly strong strand of Nazi hate. Jakubowska's own (as far as I can determine) Gentile background may contribute to this perspective but it also clearly reflects the official Communist line, emphasizing the internationalism of the Third Reich's victims.

This leads us to the most striking difference between The Last Stage and many recent films on the subject (sadly I have not yet seen European classics like Passenger and Kapo and cannot make broader comparisons). Its story is told against a specific historical and individual backdrop: Poland was firmly behind the Iron Curtain when this film was released, and Jakubowska herself was an enthusiastic Party member, faithfully serving as a liaison between the industry and the ruling party, even declaring herself "an unreformed communist" many years after Poland's democracy was restored. As such, the film occasionally lapses into propaganda mode: notably when Stalin's name is spoken with hushed, awed reverence and perhaps most importantly in the over-the-top ending in which Marta is marched toward the gallows and gives a rabble-rousing speech as the Russians roar to the rescue in the skies above.

Despite that uncharacteristic final image (which feels a bit like something out of Eisenstein, compared to the Rosselini-esque aesthetic of the rest of the film), The Last Stage is usually very subtle in its depiction of the prisoners' struggle. Jakubowska's political orientation expresses itself not so much in explicit Stalinist rhetoric but through the gritty determination of its characters, reflecting Jakubowska's own survival tactic in the camp. Here is perhaps the most important and thought-provoking difference between The Last Stage and many other camp stories - in cinema and other media. One could perhaps, very over-simplistically, divide the majority of Holocaust stories into two somewhat overlapping groups. There are those that seek a silver lining amidst the horror and those that attempt to depict that horror for its own sake without attempting a "message" - perhaps feeling that, to borrow Theodor Adorno's often misquoted and misunderstood axiom, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric."

But even aside from the possible distortion of his intent, Adorno was not at Auschwitz, and Jakubowska was. For her, and one supposes for many like her, determination was a way to survive the despair. Although The Last Stage may roughly belong to that first group of stories, it differs from most of them as well. Popular films like Schindler's List or Life is Beautiful are about one person's attempt to protect an individual or, at best, several thousands out of the millions targeted. Their optimism is cautious, caged by the realization that death will always trump life in these schemes and that life can only win if the calculations are rigged in its favor. See Schindler's List's "whoever saves one life saves the world entire" vs. Stanley Kubrick's supposed observation "Schindler's List is about success, the Holocaust was about failure."

But The Last Stage goes even further than Schindler's List, by positioning camp survival as part of a larger struggle in which a total victory is indeed possible. In that sense, the heroic ending is less an aberration than a fulfillment of Jakubowska's larger point. It's a point not very welcome in today's world (or even the postwar world, at least in the intellectual sphere), and perhaps rightfully so. If taken simply as a Marxist conceit, well-aware as we are of the brutality and oppression of Stalinist practice, it can seem quite vulgar. But this belief is also borne of Jakubowska's own experiences, just as the nihilistic despair or faintly cautious optimism of many artists may be born from their own particular brand of survivor's guilt - guilt not that one experienced the trauma and made it through, but that one avoided experiencing it altogether.

This is a point Jakubowska herself explored many years later. In her 1964 film The End of the World she contrasts the straightforward stories of an actual survivor with the pained but unfamiliar fascination of a survivor's child as well as the casual, embarrassingly aesthetic-minded curiosity of a tourist. Jakubowska returned to the subject of concentration camps several times. Her 1985 film Invitation even casts The Last Stage's own Antonina Gorecka (again playing a character named Anna) as an aging Auschwitz survivor, remembering her days in the camp while visited by an old lover who escaped to America. I haven't seen these films so I can't be sure, but I would imagine their flashback structure - not to mention the decades between event and film - places a distancing effect on the material. Even as they carry on the work of The Last Stage they would not be able to continue its immediacy.

Having provided much context, I have mostly neglected my own response to the work. Despite certain narrative compromises and the unfortunate quality of this particular print, I found The Last Stage to be a powerful and moving film. Many of these images have become familiar through repetition, yet the casualness of this depiction still manages to shock and disturb. At the same time, it is not usually as rawly emotional as the films I described above (for the reasons also described above), offering unblinking observation of the moment rather than a more drawn-out catharsis that comes with reflection and the passage of time. To a certain extent, the makers of this movie must still have been numbed and reeling from their experiences - not to mention absorbed in the disorientation and struggle of the immediate postwar world. The result is at once less filtered and more guarded than later depictions, providing a very unique perspective in the annals of such work.

The movie also reminded me of many Italian neorealist films. Despite Jakubowska's reputation for Socialist Realism (easily one of the most discredited aesthetics of all time), there's barely a whiff of stilted, lifeless propaganda and instead we observe the potent mixture of melodrama and documentary to be found in works like Open City. One wonders if Jakubowska saw these films, which hadn't reached Poland when she set to work on The Last Stage, or if she arrived at these techniques independently. Mazierska and Ostrowska note that even Jakubowska's later films, which take more obviously propagandistic subject matter, tend toward poetic neorealism rather than stale simplification:
"Often shot on location with extensive use of long shots and long takes (which seem to be unsuitable means for the arbitrariness of socialist realistic films), the films convey, perhaps against the director's wish, the sleepy atmosphere of small Polish towns, which until the Cinema of Moral Concern of the 1970s were rarely present in Polish movies. With the passage of time some of Jakubowska's films reveal an authenticity that passed unnoticed when the films were made."
Perhaps because of her link to a rightfully-discredited totalitarian ideology, Jakubowska's work has been largely neglected even in her own country. The Last Stage still stands as a landmark - albeit an obscurity outside of Poland - but otherwise her films may have been forgotten. This seems a shame. Based on what I've read, and certainly based on the quality and originality of The Last Stage, her work is worth exploring. At any rate, this particular film should be better-known and more widely seen. It's a testament not only to her skill as a director, but to the power of filmmaking to inspire and motivate, even under the worst circumstances.

I highly recommend the following links on the subject:

- Chapter 8 of Women in Polish Cinema (by Ewa Mazierska and Elżbieta Ostrowska) provided most of the historical context for this post and most of its pages can be found online via Google Books (use the link in the table of comments to leap right into chapter 8).

- The blog Venus Fabriculosa provided me further context, as well as the poster image with which I have illustrated this review, and linked me to the above book sample.

- Allan Fish's review on Wonders in the Dark introduced me to this film, and he and Sam Juliano made it possible for me to see it.

- Brian Oard, of the blog Mindful Pleasures, features a fascination dissection of Theodor Adorno's actual quote, as well as a later statement that both contradicts and expands his earlier, infamous quote.

- Einar the Lonely's IMDb review also provided a useful perspective.

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