I first learned about the existence of this relatively obscure (in the United States, anyway) film while perusing a gallery of vintage Polish film posters. My eye was immediately caught by one similar to the original cover for We Were in Auschwitz designed by Anatol Girs. Its designer, Tadeusz Trepkowski (1914-1954), a largely self-taught artist from Warsaw, was one of the original graphic designers commissioned after World War II by Film Polski and Central Wynajmu Filmow (state-run film producers and distributors) to design film posters. The film Ostatni Etap was a semi-autobiographical story about prison life in the women’s barracks at Auschwitz.
A member of the Polish resistance during the war, director and co-writer Wanda Jakubowska (1907-1998) was arrested in 1942 and spent six months in Warsaw’s Pawiak prison before being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where, she says, “the decision to make a film…originated when I crossed the camp’s gate.” A member of the camp resistance, she was moved to the Rajsko, an experimental agricultural station and one of more than 40 sub-camps, and in early 1945 was transferred to Ravensbruck where she was liberated by the Soviet Army. Once free, Jakubowska immediately began work on the script with another survivor Gerda Schneider, a German Communist, based exclusively on events witnessed by them and their fellow prisoners. By the end of the year they had produced a first draft and, returning to Auschwitz in the spring of 1946 where she had decided to film, she was shocked to find “daisies of monstrous proportions and exuberant, indescribable vegetation on the soil that was fertilized by blood and sweat.” Filming at Auschwitz-Birkenau began in the spring of the following year. Actors, many of whom were originally interned at Auschwitz, lived in the former barracks and instead of costumes wore authentic striped prison uniforms. One actor noted that “the air was filled with a characteristic unpleasant smell that had a depressing effect on us.” As harrowing as the movie is, Jakubowska notes that “the camp’s reality was human skeletons, piles of dead bodies, lice, rats, and various disgusting diseases. On the screen this reality would certainly cause dread and repulsion. It was necessary to eliminate those elements which, although authentic and typical, were unbearable for the post-war viewer.”
Released in Poland in March 1948 barely three years after Auschwitz was liberated, Ostatni etap was the second film produced by Film Polski and the first Polish film to get international distribution. Writing in The New York Times upon the occasion of the film’s U.S. release in March 1949, Bosley Crowther points out:
“ …the story itself is secondary…to the staggering accumulation of daily atrocities, seen in the pattern of the story through a pitilessly factual camera’s eye. From the opening shot in the death camp, showing the brutality of a guard to a pregnant girl, standing among a group of women in a dreary sea of mud, the film is a continuation of horrifying episodes which make up a modest realization of the inhumanity of the Nazi camps.
There is the episode, for instance, of the murder of the baby born to the suffering girl. There is the arrival of a trainload of Jewish prisoners who are brutally separated, some to be gassed. There are terrifying scenes of the inmates being driven and beaten in the prison yard while a band plays serenely cheerful music under the baton of an agonized girl. And there is one simply overwhelming sequence of little children being marched off to be killed, with a cut of their discarded toys piled up among the relics of all the dead. There are also recognitions of the frailties of the inmates themselves, revealed in vicious and deceitful stratagems and deeds.”
Interestingly, Wanda Jakubowska’s creative arc parallels that of Tadeusz Borowski’s: imprisoned at Pawiak, then Auschwitz, shortly thereafter producing an authentic, unflinching landmark work based upon harrowing experiences. However, whereas Borowski’s stories remain completely free of any trace of ideology, in Ostatni etap, Jakubowska’s Communist leanings are clear to the point that to some the propagandist nature of the film (at one point, for instance, Stalin’s name is reverently invoked) leave it irrevocably compromised. Still, it remains a valuable document for its powerful imagery that has served as template for numerous subsequent films on Auschwitz.
Special thanks to Polish film historian Professor J. Marek Haltof of Northern Michigan University whose book Polish National Cinema (New York/Oxford, 2002) and essay “The Monstrosity of Auschwitz in Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (1948)” provided indispensable background material for this post.
For more information, see Women in Polish Cinema, Chapter 8, Wanda Jakubowska: The Communist Fighter, by Ewa Mazierska.