Exactly 70 years ago, in the summer of 1949, a distinguished group gathered at a Tel Aviv cinema for a preview showing of a pioneering Polish film. The event was attended by members of the diplomatic corps, government figures and notables from literature and art.
The movie was “The Last Stage” – the first full-length feature film about the Holocaust, the first to be filmed at Auschwitz, and the first to show all the stages of killing at the camp. The director, screenwriter and many cast members, all of them women, had been prisoners there.
“This film offers a terrifying documentary-like depiction of episodes of the ‘life’ of the women prisoners in the camp, including many Jewish women and the inner spirit of rebellion, which was headed by a Jewish woman,” Haaretz wrote at the time. Whether in Israel or the wider world, not many people at the time knew much about the scope of the atrocities at Auschwitz. In this respect, too, “The Last Stage” was ahead of its time.
Director Wanda Jakubowska, sometimes called “the grandmother of Polish cinema” and “the mother of Holocaust movies,” was born in Warsaw in 1907. As a child, she moved with her parents to Russia, but they returned to Poland in 1922.
After discovering her love for cinema, she founded a film club that showed top Soviet films like “Battleship Potemkin” and “Storm Over Asia,” and later began making movies herself. Her first film, “The Sea,” was nominated for an Oscar for best short film in 1933.
A keen (non-Jewish) communist activist, Jakubowska was arrested by the Gestapo and was sent to Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak Prison, where she spent six months. Through the windows of her cell she saw the ghetto go up in flames during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943. In April that year, she was sent to Auschwitz. When she heard the gates slam shut, she told a friend that she had to record that sound. “At that moment, I realized that I had decided to make a film about Auschwitz,” she said years later.
She worked as a photographer in a factory at a satellite camp of Auschwitz, where the inmates were compelled to produce rubber to make tires for the war effort. As another prisoner from the camp recounted later, “In the dark cell where Wanda Jakubowska was put to work developing pictures, we women would gather when we could elude the eyes of the supervisors. By the red light of the machine we would read the articles from the German newspapers that came to us from the men’s camp.”
The Soviet Novosti news agency wrote in 1965: “Jakubowska swore that if she lived, she would make a film about the horrors of Auschwitz, and thus arose the terrifying truth of the film ‘The Last Stage.’” Jakubowska later said she survived Auschwitz because of her burning desire to make a film about it. She survived even though, as the Red Army advanced on Auschwitz, she was sent on a death march to the Ravensbrück women’s camp in Germany.
Right after the war, she began writing the script for “The Last Stage” with Gerda Schneider, a political prisoner from Germany, also a communist, whom she met at Auschwitz.
The material was drawn from her own experiences, from stories she heard in the camp, and from interviews with survivors and Germans who served there. The women continued working on the script after Schneider returned to Germany, meeting in Berlin to do so. One of the film’s first working titles was “The Auschwitz Concentration Camp for Women.”
Before Jakubowska’s film, scenes from Auschwitz were filmed by the Red Army. In some cases, these were reenactments made after the camp’s liberation, using former prisoners or Polish extras. But Jakubowska was the first to use the camp as the setting for a feature film.
Polish actresses and extras, including former prisoners and residents of the adjacent town of Oswiecim, were cast for the film. The production crew noted later that there was a certain advantage – not just because the cast already knew the site well, but because they acted like prisoners on the set “and did everything automatically, because they knew it all from their own experience, as returning prisoners. It was frightening.”
The production crew also spoke later of odd incidents during the filming of the “half-documentary,” as the director called it. One example was the encounter between a female cast member, still dressed in an SS uniform during a break in filming, with genuine German prisoners – POWs. Another time, Jewish visitors touring the camp were stunned to be greeted by SS troops with attack dogs – actually actors attired for their roles.
Soviet soldiers also took part as extras. “I had the entire Red Army in Poland at my disposal; it was very easy for me to make the movie. They were very disciplined and trained,” Jakubowska said. The clothes and other objects in the film – suitcases, shoes, pots – were authentic. The atmosphere was so similar to the situation during the war that the crew had to stop shooting sometimes when they were overcome with tears.
'Don’t let Auschwitz rise again'
The movie was filmed two and a half years after the camp’s liberation, between July and September 1947. It was at this time that Poland’s parliament decided to turn the camp into a memorial that would emphasize the sacrifice and suffering of Poles and other prisoners.
Even just two and a half years after liberation, a certain amount of restoration work was required. Some of the barracks had been taken apart already – in some cases the result of theft. The film was shot in the actual buildings, including a hospital area and doctor’s office. During the filming, the crew stayed in former SS quarters. Jakubowska stayed at the house of the camp commander, Rudolf Höss.
Certain aspects of the horror were censored. “The reality of the camp was emaciated prisoners, piles of corpses, lice, rats and all kinds of horrible diseases,” Jakubowska said. “On screen, this reality would cause terror and revulsion. We had to forgo these aspects despite their authenticity, because they were too unbearable for the postwar viewer.”
A number of the iconic visual images in the cinematic representation of the Holocaust were shaped by Jakubowska, Asaf Tal wrote on the Yad Vashem website. “‘The Last Stage’ can be characterized as a paradigmatic and influential work on Holocaust cinema,” Tal writes, citing similar imagery in films like “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) and “Schindler’s List” (1993).
Later Holocaust films inserted scenes from Jakubowska’s film as if they were documentary footage. Scenes that have been borrowed from her film – sometimes without approval and credit – include the arrival of transports, the curling of crematoria smoke, the hard labor of female prisoners and the barbed wire fences.
The film centers around a Jewish heroine, Marta Weiss, who is deported to the camp with her family. During the selection, she translates the commander’s instructions for the other prisoners and is chosen to serve as an official interpreter. Later she exploits her position to help her fellow inmates smuggle supplies and information, and eventually escapes with a friend, Tadek, in order to tell the world about the plan to liquidate the camp. But the two are caught and executed in a humiliating show parade.
At her death, she is revered as a heroine when the prisoner-hangman gives her a knife with which she slits her wrists and shouts to the watching crowd: “Don’t be afraid! They can’t hurt us. Hold on. The Red Army is near.” As the furious camp commander approaches her, she says: “You will soon be so small.” Then she slaps him and says, “You will not hang me.” At that dramatic moment, Allied planes appear in the sky and the Germans flee. “Don’t let Auschwitz rise again” are her last words, as she dies in the arms of another prisoner.
The Marta Weiss character is based on a true story – the story of Mala (Malka) Zimetbaum, a Polish Jew who moved to Belgium with her family as a child and was deported to Auschwitz in 1942. Fluent in several languages, she was chosen to serve as an interpreter at the camp and used her job to help other prisoners. In the camp, she met Edward (Edek) Galinski, a Polish political prisoner, and a romance developed.
They decided to escape together, in the hope of bringing news about the camp to the free world. On June 24, 1944, they escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Galinski disguised himself as an SS officer and pretended to be escorting a Jewish prisoner to work outside the camp. They were caught two weeks later. One account says Zimetbaum went into a shop to buy bread and was spotted by a German patrol that happened to be passing by. The two were returned to Auschwitz and were executed together in September 1944.
The story of Zimetbaum’s execution is just as dramatic as that of her escape. Naama Shik described it in an article on the Yad Vashem website in which she examined Zimetbaum’s story from the perspective of gender studies.
“When the verdict was read, she slit her wrists and slapped the SS man in the face with her bloody hand when he tried to stop her. The execution was interrupted,” Shik writes. “I will die as a hero and you will die as a dog,” Zimetbaum said to the SS man, according to eyewitness testimony. She was taken in a wagon to the camp hospital to stop the bleeding – so the execution could then continue as planned.
Several prisoners reported that she died on the way to the crematorium. Others say she was shot to death. Edek, her beloved, who is said to have etched her name into the walls of his prison block, shouted “long live Poland” as he was being hanged. Zimetbaum became a legend after her death. In the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust edited by Prof. Israel Gutman, she is listed as the first woman to escape from Auschwitz.
The choice to put the Mala Zimetbaum character at the center of a feature film as early as 1947 is interesting. She had become a heroine among the other women prisoners while she was still alive. Tales of her heroism were recounted right after the war. One of the earliest testimonies, also cited in Shik’s article, was given by Bila Bender in November 1945. In her testimony, provided in Yiddish, Bender called Zimetbaum “the martyr Mala” and said she deserved a place of honor in the history of heroism, and as a Jewish martyr.
“The Last Stage” as shown in the Eastern bloc was a critical and box-office success. Many considered it the first important work of Polish cinema in the postwar era. “The new stage in Polish cinema” and “a victory for the Polish film industry” were some of the praises it received. For a short time it was also shown in France, as well as in Israel, but it didn’t reach the English-speaking world and other cultures. It also eventually disappeared from Israel. A new DVD version came out a few years ago, but it hasn’t been shown in theaters for decades.
Stalin reviews the script
Seventy years after its premiere in Israel, the film has returned as part of the Polish Zoom events this month and next, a project of the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland. This time around, the film is premiering in Tel Aviv on Sunday evening.
Reexamination of the film all these years later clearly reveals its historical weaknesses; after all, it’s a communist propaganda film. Praise for Russia, Stalin and the Red Army is woven in. They are depicted as the prisoners’ only saviors – without any mention, of course, of Stalin’s cooperation with Hitler at the start of the war or of the war crimes committed by the Russians. In the film, all resistance to the Nazis is led by communist women. There is no trace of any resistance by other groups. The prisoners’ social solidarity in the face of evil is portrayed in the spirit of “The Internationale.”
The internal rivalries and acts of cruelty among the prisoners receive no place in the film. Nor is there anything on how Jewish prisoners were harshly discriminated against by prisoners of other nationalities; this wouldn’t serve the message.
“This film is based on authentic events that represent a small fraction of the truth about the Auschwitz concentration camp,” says the film, which also lists various nationalities whose members suffered death at Auschwitz. The Jews appear near the end of the list.
Also, in the film one hears Polish, Russian, German and French, but no Yiddish. This is no coincidence. Produced under the auspices of the Soviet Union, the film deliberately avoids any mention of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and instead emphasizes the universality of the war’s victims. In this, the film betrays the truth. Most of the 1.1 million victims at Auschwitz were Jews.
But unlike other works produced under the communist regime, the Jews aren’t completely absent from this one, thanks to Jakubowska’s stubborn insistence. Describing it years later, she said she was pressured to alter the plot and remove any mention of Jews. Seventy years ago, Haaretz lauded her for not paying heed.
“The film’s creators do not fall for the Western method that tends to obscure the Jews’ suffering within the general suffering,” Haaretz wrote. “In fact, more than once, emphasis is given to the systematic increase in suffering that was the lot of the Jewish prisoners, and to the open plot to completely annihilate this race. And this is the film’s great virtue.”
Film Polski, the production company, was subject to the communist ideology that racked Poland after the war. To win approval to make the film, Jakubowska had to travel to Moscow with a translated version of the script, which was reviewed by the Soviet official in charge of cinema and culture, and by Stalin himself. Jakubowska later said that before the film’s Moscow premiere, Stalin kissed her hand. She said she was startled by the difference between his powerful image in photos and his visage in person: bad teeth on a short man.
In a film career spanning 50 years, Jakubowska made 14 full-length films and is considered the first Polish woman director to gain international recognition. Her other films include “King Matthew the First” based on the novel by Janusz Korczak and “The End of Our World,” which she considered her finest work. She taught film at the Lodz film academy for decades and held various administrative positions in the Polish cinema world.
But although she won numerous prizes under communist rule, film critics have tended to consider her works as propaganda pieces. For a long time, her name was often left off the list of important Polish filmmakers. Jakubowska, who remained a communist her entire life, died in 1998 at 90.
“Movies have to be made out of a love for cinema, not a love for money or an Oscar,” she once said. Besides a love for movies, her works also show a love for an oppressive regime, one that Poland’s current nationalist government – which is also responsible for the Polish institute that arranged for the film to be shown in Israel – sees as an enemy of the people.