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Whether presented as hard documentaries or docudramas, Holocaust stories are a difficult subject. They become even more problematic when produced with a secondary political aim in mind. The allies weren't keen on publicly exhibiting actual film footage from the German-run extermination camps, as it was felt that audiences of the time simply couldn't handle such explicit horrors. In the 1980s, PBS stations finally showed Memories of the Camps, a compilation of footage narrated by Trevor Howard and "prepared" by Alfred Hitchcock. After watching the completed rough cut, the great director reportedly begged off further involvement and the film was not formally finished. Its final chapter on Auschwitz is missing because the negative was lopped off to become the first raw footage released of the full-on atrocities; I suspect it found its way into Stanley Kramer's 1961 Judgment at Nuremberg. Before that time, actual camp footage was quite rare. I know one 50s documentary that used a stylized shot from a Hollywood film to represent the Holocaust.
Part of the trepidation is the obvious taboo against films depicting actual murders. The Germans documented some of their crimes in photos but the allied army footage, some with synch sound testimonials, is for rational people irrefutable proof that the Holocaust was real. Another problem is that the morbid appeal of the horrors makes them both difficult to watch and highly watchable. In the fifties, a docu like Victory at Sea limited itself to shots of sickly and emaciated camp prisoners. They were what showed up in our nightmares; the innocent victims became the monsters. The most effective educational docu I've seen about Auschwitz is still Alain Resnais' Night and Fog, which presents only what remains of the camp and some photos. A calm narrator eases us into the awful facts of what went on.
Judgment at Nuremberg is an examination of German guilt for the Holocaust with a definite political viewpoint. It uses raw Auschwitz footage as a club to neutralize sales resistance for its message, and persuasion through shock always feels like indoctrination. Stanley Kramer was not one for understatement, and his practice of hopping from one Important Liberal Issue to the next hasn't worn well as a career plan.
The 1948 The Last Stage (Ostatni etap) also has a propaganda purpose beyond educating viewers about Auschwitz. Produced in Poland under obvious Soviet control, some of the movie's details have an undeniable authenticity and its harrowing content wasn't matched until many years later. But other facts are fudged, mostly to make the story of Auschwitz an ideological-spiritual battleground between Nazi criminality and presumed communist humanitarianism.
The Last Stage was actually filmed in the mud of Auschwitz, with Poles playing both victims and Nazi oppressors. Director Wanda Jakubowska was herself an Auschwitz survivor, and she keeps most of the film's details realistic, although later docu accounts of camp life seem far more inhuman than what's seen here. Jakubowska shows scenes of old women being beaten and kicked into ditches, but the film's barrack-blocks look fairly habitable and the clothing far too clean.
We're informed that The Last Stage was exhibited in New York, but the storyline is unthinkable for an American-made film of 1948. Arriving at Auschwitz, fearful Marta Weiss (Barbara Drapinska) is overheard translating the German commandant's orders, and is put to work as an interpreter. The rest of her family is immediately gassed and incinerated; another prisoner tells her that sooner or later, "We'll all go up the chimney". Marta sees women shot for sport by the cruel guards. The female German wardens are vicious killers as well, and a policing system of Polish Kapos further terrorizes the inmates. When a main block warden pulls in a gypsy prisoner (Zofia Mrozowska) to sing for her, another warden implies that she preys on the female inmates for sex.
The women struggle to survive, fully aware that frequent "selections" will round up hundreds at a time to be trucked to the killing compound. These scenes are followed by shots of smoke belching from the crematory chimneys. One of Marta's fellow office workers (who looks a bit like Sandra Dee) believes that she'll remain an exception, but is selected just the same. A French singer calls farewell to her sisters as she's taken away. Only internal politics prevents the German wardens from exterminating everyone in the sick bay: the Nazi medical officer (Edward Dziewonski) won't permit the wardens to enter his hospital domain. The doctor keeps a medicine cabinet stocked with lethal poisons. The most horrible scene shows how he deals with a healthy baby boy born to a prisoner. Sharing main character status is Eugenia (Tatjana Gorecka), a Leningrad-taught clinician doing her best to keep prisoners in sickbay alive, even though all she can offer many patients is verbal encouragement. The wardens eventually replace her with an incompetent who ignores her duties and hides in her private room.
Director Jakubowska stages scenes well enough but it soon becomes clear that the main aim of the script is to present communism as the solution to all problems. Eugenia organizes a system of informants to sneak information about the camps out to the rest of the world. In what seems a laughable distortion of reality, male prisoners from elsewhere in the Auschwitz deliver supplies and are allowed to talk privately with their female counterparts. Marta smuggles out information about conditions in the camp. She eventually walks out of Auschwitz simply by putting on a German uniform. Arrests and captures lead to graphic torture scenes. At a final public hanging, the Germans stand by and do nothing as the communist victim makes a rousing anti-Nazi speech!
While the more determined prisoners defy their captors like so many Joans of Arc, the Germans are shown being properly decadent, attending fancy-dress dances, etc. A German brat is encouraged to act like a little savage: "He'll make a good SS man!" One of the female German wardens is given to fanatical stares but is actually quite pretty, as compared to the stout brutes shown in official photos. A "let them eat cake" dialog line during a party shows her thrilled that the doctor's family has social contact with the Fúhrer.
The Last Stage is an impressive holocaust film; it depicts details like buckets of wedding rings years before Night and Fog. But its central purpose as propaganda is evident when an opening text block (if translated properly for the subtitles) wrongly claims that 45 million victims were killed at Auschwitz. One "selection" roundup is aimed strictly at Jews but nowhere does the movie stipulate that eliminating Jews was a key Nazi goal. Viewers watching The Last Stage might conclude that the real targets of the SS were communists and gypsies.
The filmmakers' hypocrisy becomes even more heinous when we factor in the knowledge that the Soviet Union ran its own killing camps and committed murderous atrocities on a scale almost as big as that of the Germans. The Red Army didn't so much liberate Poland as cleanse it of all potential political opposition, in more than one case allowing the Germans to wipe out Polish armed resistance before mounting offensives (see Andzrej Wajda's War Trilogy). The movie needs to be placed in a careful historical context before viewing.
Facets Video's DVD of The Last Stage is a Polart release. The indifferently transferred B&W film has been sourced from an old analog tape, as evidenced by an artifact in the first scene. Contrast is weak but the show is intact and remains visually effective. The only extra is a selection of credits lists for the director and a few actors, which otherwise tells us nothing about them; this is a movie that cries out for biographical detail and production information. We've known tasteless movies about the Holocaust, including an entire verminous genre of nazi-sploitation movies from Italy and elsewhere, but by and large there has been a modicum of sensitivity toward the subject. The Last Stage is a notable early statement on the subject, but also a sobering lesson in brutal communist propaganda.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Last Stage rates:
1. A note (2.02.10) from correspondent Bill O'Connor, about an unfamiliar title:
Dear Glenn, I have just finished reading your review of The Last Stage and was struck by your failure to mention Mein Kampf, a documentary I saw before the release of Judgment at Nuremberg, a film I hold in very high regard.
Mein Kampf was assembled from footage filmed by the SS Elite Guard and archived because Goebbels himself found the content too strong for German propaganda purposes. It has scenes of horrors that robbed me of several night's sleep. From reading your column, I suspect we are about the same age, so you might appreciate my memory of this experience. I recall seeing this documentary at the still operating Pickwick Theater in Park Ridge, Illinois in the summer of 1961, prior to the release of Judgment.
The stark realtiy of the Holocaust had never been presented in such a concentrated format before. I remember seeing adults running from the auditorium in disgust, and my own trembling and queasy feelings as the film progressed. By the end, my legs were at best rubbery. The footage used in Stanley Kramer's masterpiece may have been shocking to those who saw it for the first time, but anyone who had sat through Mein Kampf would not have been surprised.
Having this film seared in my memory caused me to go on a hunt for it over the years. I came across a DVD of it about seven years ago, and promptly purchased it. To be sure, the intervening years of watching footage of ever increasing sequences of brutality shown on film and television have jaded me, but the film is probably the first to have offered the inhumanity of Nazi atrocity to a mass audience, and is worthy of mention for that reason alone. Thanks, Bill O'Connell
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