In 1948, Polish socialist film-maker Wanda Jakubowska released this gripping and pioneering film about the Auschwitz death camp in which she herself had recently been imprisoned, using actors and nonprofessionals and partly shooting in what remained of the camp itself.
Jakubowska’s film influenced every subsequent director of work on the subject, including Resnais, Pontecorvo and Spielberg, and arguably invented the visual and dramatic language with which cinema attempted to make the Holocaust thinkable: the striped uniforms, the blocks, the bunk-beds, the brutal roll-call musters with emaciated prisoners swaying and passing out, the informants, the complicit kapos, the bizarre prisoners’ orchestra which doggedly played as the everyday brutalities were carried out. There were also the different types of Nazi: the icy functionary, the shrill ideologue, the bleary incompetent and, most sickeningly, the Nazi doctor with a negligent, distrait, quasi-civilian detachment. In this film, one takes a newborn baby boy out of the women’s block and executes him with a poison injection (off camera) because he supposes the child is likely to be a criminal or a mental defective.
The film’s title seemingly refers to the camp as the chilling last stop on the rail line, but also to the camp’s own final days. As the allies close in, Polish leftists and patriots in the women’s camp plan to publicise, via covert underground links to the men’s camp and partisan broadcasts, the Nazis’ chilling endgame plan to murder everyone in the camp in the gas chambers within five days, and then raze it to the ground the day after that.
Barbara Drapińska plays Marta, a Polish woman whose ability to speak German means she is hired as an interpreter. As women are brought to the camp, they are terrified, and daughters attempt to reassure their mothers: “If they were going to kill us, they would have taken us to a forest.” All their possessions are taken away (there is later a brutal tracking shot showing the piles of children’s toys, clothes, shoes, hairbrushes and the like), and everyone is immersed in the horror of the camp in which cruelty is a way of life. There is a truly bizarre scene in which a block elder – a kind of prisoner-trusty over and above the kapo – demands that one of the Gypsy prisoners sing to her in her relatively well-appointed quarters, to soothe her nerves.
The Last Stage is a forthright, vehement film with a confident and almost Hollywoodised way of portraying the nightmare, but with a distinctive emphasis on the leftist Polish patriots and their defiant plan to resist. The existence of the gas chambers themselves is casually, in fact bloodfreezingly, invoked, though they are not in direct sight. But one of the film’s most electrifyingly nauseating scenes shows the Nazi personnel and their families relaxing in their luxurious quarters, and a spoilt brat of a child makes his indulgent parents and their friends line up like prisoners while he yells at them in a mini-kommandant vein. (Perhaps Jonathan Glazer’s forthcoming film The Zone of Interest will explore precisely this kind of black-comic horror.)
The Last Stage is essential both as a film and historical document.
• The Last Stage is available on 11 January on Mubi.