Long-forgotten seminal Holocaust film re-emerges at Tel Aviv film festival
The first feature film made about the Holocaust using Auschwitz as a film set is to be shown again.
Polish director Wanda Jakubowska’s eviscerating screen portrayal of the killing process at the extermination camp designed, built and operated by Germany was released in March 1948 in Poland.
Now, over 70 years after is debut, The Last Stage is being rereleased, this time in Israel as part of the Polish Zoom festival organised by the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.
Jakubowska’s film is based on the real-life Jewish prisoner Malka Zimetbaum, who is portrayed as the character Marta Weiss. In the film, upon arrival, she translates the commander’s instructions for other prisoners and is chosen to serve as an official interpreter.
She used this privilege to help her fellow prisoners by smuggling supplies. She eventually escaped with a friend, Tadek, in an attempt to contact the Polish underground and tell the world about the plan to liquidate the camp, but the two were caught and sentenced to death in a show trial in front of other prisoners in a show execution.
Moments before her death she takes a knife and slits her wrists, shouting to the crowd: “Don’t be afraid! They can’t hurt us. Hold on. The Red Army is near.”
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 movie was filmed two and a half years after the camp’s liberation, between July and September 1947 and Soviet soldiers took part as extras.
Jakubowska later said: “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.”
Clothes and other objects in the film such as suitcases, shoes and pots were authentic. This all helped to create an atmosphere that was so similar to when the camp was operating that the crew would often have to stop filming as they were overcome with tears.
On another occasion, Jewish visitors touring the camp were stunned to be greeted by SS troops with attack dogs, who were actually actors in costume.
The cast and extras were largely made up of former prisoners and people from Oświęcim. The realities of the camp were so fresh that they acted like prisoners.
“They did everything automatically, because they knew it all from their own experience, as returning prisoners. It was frightening,” Jakubowska recalled.
For Jakubowska, the film was deeply personal. She was sent to Auschwitz herself in 1943 after being held in the Germans’ notorious Pawiak prison in Warsaw.
On arrival at Auschwitz, when she heard the gates close behind her, 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.
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.
After having her script approved by Stalin, who she met and remembered as being short and having bad teeth, she took the film crew to Auschwitz.
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.
The film has been largely forgotten in the intervening decades since it was made as it was regarded as being simply a communist propaganda film and the role of Jews as victims is downplayed, even though they made up the vast majority of the death camp’s estimated 1.1 million victims.
The film won the Crystal Globe at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 1948, and it was nominated for Grand International Award at Venice Film Festival in 1948 and for a BAFTA Award for Best Film in 1950.