For most Americans who care, the Holocaust-on-film story runs something like this: outside of the release of newsreel footage after the war, and a few tame references in quasi-noirs like “Paris Underground” (1945), the extermination camp phenomenon was too recent and too toxic for mainstream film, until Alain Resnais assembled “Night and Fog” (1955), and an examination of the freakish period could begin in earnest.
It’s a timeline that makes emotional sense, given the wholesale trauma involved, but it’s also far from true, as the recent DVD release of Wanda Jakubowska’s “The Last Stage” (1948) proves. I hardly know where to begin — a Polish film about life in Auschwitz, made less than three years after liberation of the camp, shot on location in Auschwitz itself, using real liberated prisoners as extras, filmed by a woman (female Polish directors in the ’40s?) who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz just three years earlier. I’d never heard of Jakubowska’s landmark — it probably came too soon, and demanded too much of war-weary audiences to have established itself on the cultural stage. But Jakubowska’s grim document was, apparently, the first of its kind, and it is often a little too much like watching it happen in real time.
Not that the style of the film is ur-documentary or anything — Jakubowska adheres to the classic Hollywood-ized style of the day, and the actresses (because the film focuses exclusively on women prisoners, recreating Jakubowska’s own tribulations) are usually too lovely and too carefully photographed. But the fact of the film’s unique authenticity hangs over everything like a cold front. You can’t forget the circumstances in which it was made, nor should you.
The director has her shaky hands on what she seemed to already know was the most loaded real location of the 20th century, and she used it: the train tracks, the front gate, the Nazis guards lined up against the sky as the transports roll in, the inmate crowds so huge (thousands, at least) that Jakubowska could have only recruited extras from displaced person camps in Poland. The film is inevitably modest about torture and annihilation, but not by ’40s standards, and a long montage panning over mountains of leftover coats, shoes, toys and prosthetic limbs is a breathtaker, especially when you realize the filmmaker might well have used the real detritus found at the camp. In a filmed moment roughly parallel to Roberto Rossellini’s postwar surge (just out, it should be said, from Criterion in the best form the trilogy has seen since the ’40s), Jakubowska brings the spirit of absolute witness to the Holocaust to a degree no other filmmaker has ever or will ever be able to match.
Fittingly, it’s an ensemble narrative, punctuating the female inmates’ day-to-day survival with the Nazi families’ übermensch rationales and recreations, and every point you’ve ever seen scored in Holocaust narratives ever since was scored here first. But it’s more potent than that, because the spirit of the prison population is focused doggedly on resistance, on tracking the Allied Forces’ progress, on pulling together as women against a common enemy. Here, the Jewish women (along with Gypsies, Communists and female Russian soldiers) do not quake in their socks, but plot an uprising. Sprouts of heroism compete with routine acts of annihilation, including the matter-of-fact extermination of an infant.
If any forgotten movie deserves to enter the broader discourse about contemporary history, this is it. Unfortunately, Polart, like a few outfits that Facets distributes, rarely prepares or spruces up their prints before committing them to video, and has sent the film out in a weary, fuzzy, battered edition that cries out to be subsumed someday by full-on restoration and a Criterion-style re-release. But until then, it’s still kinda essential.