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The Last Stage is possibly the world’s first Holocaust movie. Shot in 1948, in the Auschwitz camp, with former prisoners playing some of the roles, it shows life in the women’s camp as witnessed first-hand by director Wanda Jakubowska.

Camp Life

Polart and Facets keep The Last Stage alive
Polart and Facets keep The Last Stage alive

The Last Stage feels like it’s bearing witness rather than telling a story, like it exists to tell the Poles what was happening in their own country — in Auschwitz — during the war. Different scenes are stitched together in a patchwork quilt depicting the people, the events, and the culture within the camps.

A head nurse is competent and caring. Her replacement is the opposite: vapid and selfish. Another woman gives birth, and her friends conspire to pretend she died in childbirth so that the guards won’t single her out for abuse. We often return to a bandleader who conducts music for all the parades and marches. She keeps the music alive while witnessing the terrible treatment given to those who break ranks.

The guards bring talented prisoners to their quarters for entertainment, prisoners who in turn try to make the most of their privilege by stealing goods. A new prisoner with a skill such as translating is allowed to keep her hair as a sign of rank.

The Red Cross comes to inspect and of course all of the best-fed prisoners are put together in a well-stocked hospital ward. One of the women risks her life to tell the inspectors “This is a lie.”

All of the prisoners seem to have gossip, some of which is probably true, much of which is wishful thinking. And all of them — prisoners, guards, even the 8-year-old son of an SS officer — refer to what happens to the least fortunate as “going out through the chimney.”

The Importance of Pedigree

At times the black-and-white film feels like a polished production, but not always. The heroic orchestral score sounds modern and sophisticated. Crane shots and large crowd scenes make it feel like a big-budget movie. But many of the scenes play like a silent film. The monaural audio is distant and muddy, as though it were recorded in an old movie house. And some of the editing and photography looks like a throwback to Russian silent cinema.

If I had seen The Last Stage without knowing its pedigree, I might have been impressed by the earliness of its release — it looks like a film from 1948 — but might have found it too episodic and scattered; I would have compared it unfavorably to later Holocaust films that had a better focus.

But knowing that Jakubowska survived Auschwitz, that she shot a film there only two years after its liberation, that other survivors participated in the film, and that later directors like Steven Spielberg cite The Last Stage as a model for their own work, well that makes The Last Stage something worth at least one close viewing and maybe more.

Kudos to Facets and Polart for keeping this film alive.

DVD Extras

The only extra features on the DVD are filmographies of some of the principal actors. What the DVD missing is the explanation of the film’s pedigree. It’s mentioned on the back of the DVD case, on an opening title card, and of course at Wikipedia.

Picture and Sound

Unfortunately, some subtitles were completely obscured watching this DVD on my Samsung Blu-ray player. They were digitally scrambled and rendered unreadable. I tried the disc on my computer and the subtitles were fine, so I don’t know whether the problem is in my player, on the disc, or in the communication between the two.

The audio is a little muddy. You do hear the dialogue and score well, but the whole track has a big-room echo that loses intimacy and clarity.

The tonal range in the picture is good, which makes up for some instability and noise on the film. The disc seems like it comes from a clean print.

How to Use This DVD

Do your homework first by reading up on the movie before you watch it. Start with Wikipedia’s article.