Streaming Review

The Last Stage review – a remarkably brave act of remembrance

This 1948 Holocaust drama - directed by an Auschwitz survivor - is a vital work of cinema history whose influence is staggering

One of the first films to tackle the Holocaust after the end of World War II, this re-release of 1948’s The Last Stage is a vital piece of remembrance and cinematic history. Made by Polish socialist director Wanda Jakubowska and based on her own experiences in Auschwitz just a few years prior, its power to shock may have been diluted by subsequent – and more graphic – Holocaust films (all of which owe a huge debt to Jakubowska), but its place in history is guaranteed.

Filmed in the remains of the Auschwitz camp, the immediacy of The Last Stage is hard to wrap your head around, survivors returning to the site of their unimaginable trauma to tell a semi-fictionalised story of hope and resistance that would create the filmic language by which we now understand the Holocaust. Though the plot is primarily based on the story of Mala Zimetbaum, here named Marta Weiss, a prisoner at Auschwitz who worked as a translator and used her associated privileges to orchestrate resistance, it has a large ensemble drawn from all corners of the women’s section of the camp.

There are heroes in the form of Marta and the medics, attempting to soothe crippling pain with pitiful resources, villains amongst the gallery of bizarre grotesques that make up the guards, and the morally compromised middle-ground of the Kapos, those recruited by the SS to control their fellow prisoners. It’s remarkable to see all the character archetypes we associate with Holocaust cinema already drawn so fully here – the extent to which The Last Stage is the blueprint for this genre can’t really be overstated.

Though it isn’t as viscerally horrifying as, say, Night and Fog or Schindler’s List, The Last Stage is, of course, still deeply distressing, especially in a moment where the camp’s blithely sadistic SS doctor executes a newborn via lethal injection. What’s amazing, then, is Jakubowska’s ability to conjure light and hope and sisterhood amongst the prisoners, whether that’s in a singalong during a work excursion or reading out smuggled news clippings about the impending collapse of the German war effort.

Undoubtedly, some of The Last Stage’s power has been dulled by time (by this point, much of it is compelling more on an academic level than a purely emotional one), but this is still a stunningly brave act of memory from a survivor of one of humanity’s most barbaric crimes.

The Last Stage is showing on MUBI from 11 January.

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