For more than 2 billion Christians around the world, this week begins the Lenten season of reflection and penance. This is a time for sorting out life’s most important spiritual priorities—and recommitting ourselves to make amends for past past injustices. In that light, it’s appropriate to rediscover “The Last Stage” in this season.
This very early film about the Holocaust was shot at Auschwitz two years after the war ended. It was written and directed by a Polish woman—a filmmaker who survived the infamous death camp. So, the film she and her crew produced is closer to a historical artifact than a typical Hollywood movie about the era. Tragically, until now, the movie was virtually unknown in the U.S. because it was produced in Poland—in Polish and German—during the period when the Soviet Union was consolidating power over Poland.
As a journalist with a long-standing interest in reporting on the legacy of the Holocaust, I had heard of the film’s existence, but never expected to see it. Now, Facets—the Chicago-based non-profit film distribution group—has brought a DVD with English subtitles to the U.S. Click Here if you’d like to learn about ordering a copy of “The Last Stage” via Amazon.
There is almost no biographical material easily accessible about writer-director Wanda Jakubowska in English, not even in the DVD liner notes. The Wikipedia page about her life is spare. The big IMDB online film site has even less.
New York Times subscribers still can read Bosley Crowther’s lengthy 1949 review, when the film briefly was shown in the U.S. At that time, Crowther described it as: “a grim and shattering reminder of the terrible, ghastly deeds which
were done under the bestial regime of the Nazis in their huge
Except for Facets’ resurfacing of the film in an American DVD release, “The Last Stage” might have remained merely a footnote in Holocaust history books.
“The Last Stage” is not “entertaining.” It’s gripping—as shattering today as Crowther described it more than 60 years ago. The film has not been digitally restored to its original theatrical quality—merely reprinted for American DVD viewing—but its grainy black and white quality doesn’t detract from its impact.
Because it was produced in Poland in 1947, the film reflects the dominant Soviet interpretation of the Holocaust after World War II—that this genocide was aimed broadly at minorities by the Fascists in Germany. The film includes several target groups, including Jews and “Gypsies” among others. So, the film is not a historically accurate look at the overall nature of the Holocaust in the 1930s and 1940s as we understand it today.
But that really wasn’t the point of the movie. Clearly, Wanda and her crew were obsessed with setting down on film an unforgettable memoir of life in Auschwitz. They deliberate shot it in the remains of the camp within 2 years of its liberation.
How Wanda and her crew were able to return to the site of such cruelty and mass murder seems amazing in itself. Apparently, they poured their trauma into these 105 minutes of cinema.
The film’s greatest value is the stark clarity of Wanda’s memories. Mostly, she recalls what must have been indelible details. You’ll not soon forget her sequence of a transport train arriving on a foggy night with silhouettes of armed guards hemming in the terrified people spilling from the cattle cars.
You’ll also be struck by the sharp detail of the individual guards—obviously figures burned forever into her memories. One especially cruel guard, part way through the film, appears cradling her pet puppy even as she pursues a deadly mission against the inmates. I assume these details are very specific visual memories from Wanda’s time in the camp.
Why the Holocaust—again?
We know from past reader response to our stories on new Holocaust-related books and films that this “news” is important to many men and women. But, some may question the value of this continued remembrance of such a tragic chapter of world history.
Here’s one answer: A week ago, Bernice Johnson Reagon appeared on National Public Radio. She was among the first civil rights freedom singers who toured the nation in the 1960s sharing both music and news of the struggle for freedom in the American South. Now, half a century later, she is a well-known educator and curator emeritus at the Smithsonian. She appeared on NPR to talk about the legacy of that often deadly struggle in the 1950s and 1960s. While on air, she was asked whether anyone today can appreciate lessons from that era.
“Did you have to be there?” the NPR radio host asked her.
“I’m a historian,” Johnson Reagon said. “I spend a lot of time talking to people who were not there and telling them that there are lessons they can access from that period. You do not have to have been born in segregation or slavery. You do not have to have traveled at the bottom of a slave ship to get to it sufficiently.”
Remembrance is valuable, she affirmed. “You try to access what human beings generated to get them through situations. And when you get that kind of thing, I encourage young people that they can make use and apply this to the situations they have to address in their own time.”
The same can be said of the Holocaust.
Remembering is essential. We can access valuable insights.
Especially in a season like Lent, millions of us are supposed to reflect on the past—as we make commitments about the future.
Now, thanks to Facets, there’s one more important artifact to teach us these lessons even more forcefully.
NOTE ON TODAY’S PHOTOS: The top image today shows inmates in the film, talking about whether the outside world realizes what is happening to them. They affirm in Polish—and in English subtitles—”Let them know.” In addition to the current DVD cover, there’s a colorful Polish poster for the film, shown above. Wanda herself is shown seated in a chair, above, in what seems to be the one available image of her while she was working as a filmmaker. (You can also find a frail image of her in old age online—but this image, above, shows her closer to the time she produced “The Last Stage.”) The Auschwitz guard, starting through a barbed-wire fence, is from the film—as is the nearly silhouetted scene of a train arriving, below.
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