The Last Stage (Ostatni etap) (15th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival) Review
There have been many films made about the Holocaust, both documentary and drama. But The Last Stage (Ostatni etap) trumps almost all of them as it is the work of two women (director Wanda Jakubowska and her co-writer Gerda Schneider) who were actually prisoners in Auschwitz/Birkenau (Oświęcim/Brzezinka) and this film, made in 1948, was shot at the actual location of the camp. If you weren't aware of that, an opening caption, at least in the version I saw, will inform you of that fact. Even if the film was of no merit, which is emphatically not the case, you have to admire its makers' fortitude in dealing with a subject which for them a very recent and undoubtedly very painful memory.
Wanda Jakubowska was born in 1907 and directed her first feature film, Edison Street (Ulica Edisony) before the War, in 1937. The Kinoteka Festival is showcasing two of her films, the present one and her 1960 feature Encounters in the Dark (Spotkania w mroku). She is little known outside her native country and somewhat out of fashion within it, partly because she was a Communist and and adherent of the socialist-realist style of filmmaking which younger directors moved away from in the post-War years. She is also worth noting as one of the few women in the world directing feature films in the 1930s. But The Last Stage, which remains her best-known work, shows that she was a filmmaker of undeniable talent.
The Last Stage is an ensemble piece, following several women interned in Birkenau's women's camp, which is where Jakubowska was herself interned. The prisoners are forced to line up on the parade ground, the threat of being sent “up the chimney” being ever-present as the camp seeks to execute more and more people, their “crimes” identified by the badges they wear. When the Red Cross visits, a prisoner-doctor tells the truth and is tortured and executed. Marta Weiss (Barbara Drapińska) is determined that the world should know what is going on in the camp, and plans her escape. The film succeeds in conveying the day to day horror of the camp, though inevitably it's less graphic than later films on the same subject. That said, it was released in UK cinemas in 1952, passed uncut with the then-new X certificate (restricted to those aged sixteen and over, a rating introduced the year before) which probably enabled it to be commercially released at all, at least not without considerable trimming. It's not been in distribution since then in the UK, and I have found no record of any television showing.
As well as continuing to direct films, making her final feature in 1988, Jakubowska was from 1949 until 1974 at the newly-established National Film School in Łódź. There, she taught many of the newer generation of Polish filmmakers. She is credited as a mentor on two of Krzysztof Kieślowski's early short films, Tramway (Tramwaj, 1966) and Concert of Requests (Koncert życzeń, 1967). She died in 1998 at the age of ninety.
The Last Stage shows on 1 April at 4.00pm at the ICA, London, in the 15th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival, with an introduction by Kieron Corless.
Encounters in the Dark shows at the ICA at 6.15pm on 2 April.