Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (Ostatni Etap) is one of the world’s earliest feature films about the Holocaust, premiering in Poland as early as March 1948. It’s also a personal narrative: partly based on Jakubowska’s own experiences at Birkenau women’s camp at Auschwitz, The Last Stage chronicles life in the camp from a personal angle, filmed on site.
While its incorporation of documentary footage is one aspect bringing home the horrors of Auschwitz, this is achieved even more harrowingly with Jakubowska’s close attention to detail, recalling camp jargon like various descriptions of ‘supper’ standing for torture. Additionally, she pays attention to the (ab)use of music by the Nazis: a live orchestra or a record always play in scenes of murder, making them even more gruesome, as though music were actively belittling what’s happening. Carefully placed, these aspects of the film let us forget just how old its cinematography is, making it a timeless document of the Shoah.
Focusing on prisoners, German overseers, and the dubious women in between – non-German collaborators, who are prisoners but also oversee them – we are faced with multiple stories, tied together by the figure of Marta Weiss. Marta’s a Polish Jew with fluent knowledge of German, making her the only survivor of her transport, as she’s given a job as a translator.
In this extraordinary position, Marta not only sees the suffering and murder of her fellow prisoners, but is also able to move relatively freely and in steady contact with Polish and German perpetrators, allowing her to pass on information: set in the final months before Auschwitz’s liberation on 27 January 1945, it takes place as the Allies are approaching, permitting the women a glimpse of hope and the bravery of resistance. Within this plot, the film also contains clear communist overtones – hardly surprising, given that it was first shown in the Polish People’s Republic. Stalin is praised by the nurses; there’s a communist resistance of male and female prisoners working from within the camp, and, at the end, the Russians liberate them.
While Marta’s character only comes to realise her heroic potential in the closing scenes, one of the film’s most admirable characters is Eugenia, a prisoner and Polish doctor responsible for the sick bay. Not only are Eugenia and her nurses fighting to improve the prisoner’s lives – the doctor also steps forward when an international commission comes to the camp for inspection. In broken German, learned only for that purpose, Eugenia tells of the murders, the torture, the maltreatment and lack of medicines – only to be tortured and murdered herself as a result.
Glimpses like this highlight the brutal complexities of life in the camps: multiple languages, a cruel hierarchy made to dehumanise and distance overseers and prisoners from each other, and the sheer bloodlust of the Nazi guards and soldiers. Jakubowska shows much raw content, yet manages to tie it into a plot of its own – with strong links to reality. Thus, even though the film is called The Last Stage in the memory of those who didn’t return, it’s a film about survival. Each character knows how close death is, yet they do their best to keep each other alive: solidarity among the ‘ordinary’ prisoners and the nurses, Jakubowska shows, was a vital means of resistance.
There are many Holocaust films, yet what makes The Last Stage extraordinary isn’t just that it’s so personal and was produced such a short time after the war – and in the very place where the director was incarcerated. It’s also a film directed and written by women, focusing almost exclusively on female characters, prisoners and guards alike. In so doing, The Last Stage offers a unique insight into a specifically female experience of the Holocaust – thematising childbirth for example, or the traumatic loss of hair upon arrival in the camp – which has only recently regained attention. In this context, The Last Stage’s near 70-year existence and its raw, direct reliving of the concentration camps means it should be safeguarded – and above all watched – to keep discussions and the director’s memories alive. In the last scene, Marta says ‘Don’t ever let this happen again’. It’s a message still as relevant today as seventy years ago.
The Last Stage (Ostatni Etap) was screened as part of KINOTEKA, the 15th Polish Film Festival in London, running from 17 March till 5 April 2017.