Pytka on Haltof, 'Screening Auschwitz: Wanda Jakubowska's The Last Stage and the Politics of Commemoration'

Marek Haltof
Meghann Pytka

Marek Haltof. Screening Auschwitz: Wanda Jakubowska's The Last Stage and the Politics of Commemoration. Cultural Expressions of World War II Series. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2018. Illustrations. 208 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8101-3610-6; $99.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8101-3608-3; $34.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-8101-3609-0.

Reviewed by Meghann Pytka (Northwestern University) Published on H-Poland (March, 2021) Commissioned by Anna Muller (University of Michigan - Dearborn)

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Establishing the Visual Vocabulary of Holocaust Films: Wanda Jakubowska’s Ostatni etap (1948)

Though it may function as the “mother of all Holocaust films,” Wanda Jakubowska’s Ostatni etap (The Last Stage [1948]) has long languished without a monographic treatment.[1] Marek Haltof’s recent study addresses this lacuna. Auspiciously timed, Haltof’s contribution comes as Holocaust scholars grapple with the “visual turn.” Recently, visually oriented scholars have used Jewish photographs to destabilize linear understandings of the Holocaust and to counter state-sponsored memory regimes. They, too, have analyzed Holocaust films as transmitters of historical knowledge and as framers of popular consciousness. This visual pivot has even prompted some to use geographic information system (GIS) mapping to better understand the architecture of genocide and its lived experiences. Haltof provides his offering in the midst of these theoretically engaged developments. With its focus on origins, production, and impact of Ostatni etap, Haltof’s work is traditionalist in its orientation. Nevertheless, Haltof provides insights into the film’s political context and ideological milieu.

Largely reconstructive in his methodology, Haltof traces the history of Ostatni etap from its inception to its reception. Haltof’s narrative begins in 1907 in Warsaw in the Russian Empire with the birth of Jakubowska. The daughter of professional parents, Jakubowska was steeped in Russo-Polish politics and culture. She eventually attended university and became enmeshed in communist politics and leftist cinema. By the 1930s, she had made inroads into the elite cultural circles of Warsaw. Many of these contacts, including Alexander Ford, Jerzy Bossak, and Jerzy Toeplitz, would eventually become influential Communist Party members. Though nominated for an Academy Award in 1933, Jakubowska was hampered by geopolitics. Her first feature film, an adaptation of Eliza Orzeszkowa’s Nad niemnem, had been scheduled for release in 1939. No such release ever materialized, and the film reels were subsequently lost. With the outbreak of World War II, Jakubowska joined the Polish underground. She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and transported to Auschwitz in 1943. From these experiences Jakubowska shaped her postwar filmic career. According to her own self-fashioned mythology, Jakubowska began developing Ostatni etap the very day she arrived in Auschwitz. Following her liberation, the auteur set out to make her vision a reality—traversing international boundaries and Stalinist bureaucracies. Her intention was to inaugurate a new type of cinematic genre: the quasi-documentary. With this form, Jakubowska sought to reveal the “truth” of Auschwitz, using survivors as actors and extras and Auschwitz-Birkenau as her set. This verisimilitude, Jakubowska reasoned, would more urgently convey the educational message of the film: Auschwitz was the logical outgrowth of fascism, the enemy of communism. Throughout 1947, Jakubowska shot and edited Ostatni etap. In March 1948, the film was released to great fanfare. Generally, the public praised Jakubowska’s commitment to truth and her ability to represent Auschwitz. Only a handful of survivors, like Tadeusz Borowski, criticized her bowdlerization and her need for heroic uplift. Jakubowska’s work was praised around the world, and subsequently, Ostatni etap has proven foundational in establishing the visual vocabulary of Holocaust films.

As Haltof painstakingly details, Jakubowska was an ardent communist, and she leveraged this fact to will her project into being. Communism structured Jakubowska’s survival in Auschwitz. It was through these connections that she found support and an artistic community within the camp. Much as Jakubowska’s wartime survival hinged on communism, so too did her postwar artistic career. When Polish bureaucrats threatened to indefinitely stall her project, Jakubowska activated her political connections to have Moscow greenlight her work. The ideologies and artistic strictures of Soviet-style communism also found voice in Jakubowska’s work. Jakubowska tapped into her image as a public educator and filmmaker to teach the world about Auschwitz. Within the plot of Ostatni etap, hardships were overcome by political education and solidarity. Joseph Stalin’s name was treated with reverence. The Soviets were positioned as the ultimate vanquishers of fascism. Despite her desire to create a new genre of film, Jakubowska often fell victim to the aesthetics of socialist realism. Unpleasant scenes were cut. Camp atomization gave way to prisoner solidarity and heroism. Yet Jakubowska’s formal commitments were hardly orthodox. She, too, deployed aspects of melodrama. The world Ostatni etap painted was bifurcated between the good and the bad—with the good as saintly and the bad as monstrous. In her production, Jakubowska’s protagonists were shot and lit as heroes to highlight their virtuous natures. Because of its admixture of docudrama, socialist realism, and melodrama, Ostatni etap was able to appeal to a broad range of international audiences. Nevertheless, by the 1950s, Ostatni etap had largely fallen out of favor for its communist overtones.

Haltof’s narrative is clear and easy to follow. Both Jakubowska’s career trajectory and the film’s production history are lucidly described. Yet, at times, the book would benefit from further theoretical engagement, particularly with regard to gender theory. Haltof provides us with a biographical account of Jakubowska’s development as an artist, but how did her gendered subjectivity help her produce the film in its final iteration? How did centering her plot on the experiences of women counter ascendent, masculinist narratives of Polish wartime suffering? How did Jakubowska’s presentation of her female characters reinscribe notions of traditional femininity? For that matter, how did Jakubowska’s sanitized versions of her protagonists provide her heroes—and, hence, camp prisoners writ large—with dignity? And what about bodily integrity and modesty? What truths of camp life did Jakubowska elide, and, hence, suppress, by leaving much of the violence—physical and sexual—off screen or on the editing room floor? How have Jakubowska’s choices become central to gendered Holocaust memory regimes? To be sure, the reader comes to understand that Jakubowska’s experiences as a woman often hurt her within elite circles and that they, too, worked to provide the raw experiential material upon which Ostatni etap was based. For that matter, Haltof often remarks that Ostatni etap was “seminal” in establishing filmic tropes surrounding the Holocaust. Yet, despite his highly gendered language, Haltof neither interrogates the gendering of the film nor the importance of gender in the production of transnational Holocaust memory.

The last portion of Haltof’s book focuses on the reception and international influence of Ostatni etap. This attention does prompt the question of how Haltof intervenes on the scholarship of transnational cultural circulation. One is struck by how Jakubowska, an unlikely figure, a woman born on the outskirts of Europe, was able to become “seminal” to global Holocaust memory production. How did she mobilize her international contacts and deploy particular themes to ensure that her product was viewed, well-received, and influential within the transnational culture industry? In other words, how did she strategically use an amalgam of communist sensibilities and Western styles to ensure that her work was legible and palatable to a broad, global audience? How did she leverage French contacts and “Western” themes to confer credibility onto her “Eastern” work within an international context? Moreover, what in the Zeitgeist gave Ostatni etap such global impact, while Koniec naszego świata (1964)—often viewed as the most developed of her Holocaust films—remains largely unknown outside of Poland? This lack of theoretic engagement is likely a by-product of Jakubowska’s own reticence on these matters rather than Haltof’s obviation. Concerns over gender, transnational cultural reception, and the culture industry do not seem to have been preoccupations of hers. Nevertheless, Haltof’s study opens space for later scholars to come and answer these questions.


[1]. Hanno Loewy, “The Mother of all Holocaust Films?: Wanda Jakubowska’s Auschwitz Trilogy,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 24, no. 2 (2004): 179-204.

Citation: Meghann Pytka. Review of Haltof, Marek, Screening Auschwitz: Wanda Jakubowska's The Last Stage and the Politics of Commemoration. H-Poland, H-Net Reviews. March, 2021. URL:

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