How Polish director Wanda Jakubowska used her own experience in Auschwitz to create ‘the mother of all Holocaust movies’

On what would have been her 114th birthday, The Calvert Journal looks back at the life of Polish film director Wanda Jakubowska, whose searing films on the legacy of the Holocaust were eventually overshadowed by her left-wing views.

10 October 2021

Born in Poland, Wanda Jakubowska was one of the world’s first female directors. A pioneer of auteur cinema, her best-known film, The Last Stage, drew on her personal experiences in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The drama was hailed by critics as “the mother of all films about the Holocaust.”

Yet Jakubowska was only able to gain international recognition for her work at the very end of her life. Today, her Wikipedia biography consists of just a few sentences, while a monograph devoted to her life was only published in 2015. Despite the efforts of (mainly) film historians, the memory of Wanda Jakubowska and her films is slowly fading away.

Director Wanda Jakubowska.

Director Wanda Jakubowska.

Early Inspirations

Jakubowska was born on Hoża Street in Warsaw in 1907, but left for tsarist Russia as a child at the start of the First World War. Russia too was undergoing political, social and economic turmoil — Wanda’s mother was seriously ill, and her father was busy at work as the superintendent of a rolling mill. As a teenager, Jakubowska often ran away from home to walk the streets of Moscow.

It was here in the Russian capital that the young director was exposed to a revolutionary new art form: cinema. The young director loved Russian movie stars, and would later claim the 1918 film Father Sergius by Yakov Protazanov shaped her personality for life. Based on a story of the same name by Leo Tolstoy, the film is full of psychological nuance and visual metaphor, so much so that it is often called the cinematic pinnacle of tsarist Russia. It was this kind of cinema that Jakubowska would try to create herself in the future.

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Tsarist Russia, however, was set soon to fall. Jakubowska watched as the USSR was born, shaping many of her later political beliefs. She also saw Żenotdiel — the pioneering office of women’s affairs — founded in 1919. The department’s originator and co-founder, Aleksandra Kollontaj, called for the economic and psychosexual emancipation of women. Alongside ideas about socialism, the young Jakubowska also absorbed ideas on political commitment and the right to self-realisation regardless of gender.

Jakubowska’s mother eventually died, and the director returned to Poland with only her father in 1922. She began studying art history and then film, before founding a think tank with a decidedly left-wing profile: START. Together with a group of similarly socialist thinking young people, she campaigned to build affordable housing for the working class and to improve women’s working conditions.

It was while at START that Jakubowska made her 1933 short movie The Sea, alongside Jerzy Zarzycki and Stanislaw Wolski. According to the director herself, the film consisted of images of sea waves, poetically juxtaposed with shots of an attacking tiger. Documentation on the film remains scarce, although some researchers have claimed that the film was in fact nominated for an Academy Award in 1933. It’s currently difficult to verify this claim, not least because The Sea has since been lost. If true, however, it would make Jakubowska not only the first Pole, but also the first woman to receive a nod from the American Academy.

Wanda Jakubowska and Borys Monastyrski on the set of The Last Stage in 1947.

Wanda Jakubowska and Borys Monastyrski on the set of The Last Stage in 1947.

Jakubowska also began directing her first film, On the Nemunas, in 1939. Sadly, the outbreak of the Second World War quickly curtailed her activities. The premiere of On the Nemunas had been scheduled to take place on 5 September 5, 1939 On 3 September 3, the cinema building where the screening had been planned was bombed by invading Nazi forces. The reels containing On the Nemunas were hidden — so well that they were never found again.

Jakubowska quickly became involved in resistance groups fighting the Nazi invaders, distributing underground leaflets and other materials. She was ultimately caught on 30 October 1942 and sent to prison before being transferred to two labour camps: Birkenau and Ravensbrück.

The Last Stage

Jakubowska ultimately survived her ordeal in the Nazi prison camp system. At the end of the war, she emerged into a newly-socialist Poland, where many of her former friends from film school or START had taken on government positions.

Jakubowska hoped to return to her greatest passion: cinema. She began writing the screenplay for The Last Stage, based on her own experience of being held prisoner by the Nazis.

Today, we would call the film a classic docudrama. Slowly, the film builds a collective portrait of an international group of women trying to survive the nightmare of the extermination camps. Each of the film’s protagonists has their own story, but all of them support each other, fighting for the remnants of dignity and humanity.

The screenplay sparked mixed feelings. Jakubowska’s former comrades agreed that the film was good, but many were convinced that the film “was not for a woman”. But despite the obvious disapproval of government decision-makers, Jakubowska obtained permission to produce the film, with The Last Stage making just the first part of an overall camp trilogy.

A still from The Last Stage (1947)

A still from The Last Stage (1947)

The film premiered in 1947, just two years after the end of the Second World War. Most of the people who took part in this production — actresses, cinematographers, sound engineers — had themselves experienced life in concentration camps. For many, The Last Stage was a step that allowed them to heal from some of that trauma. Shooting took place in the real Birkenau labour camp, with the whole team spending more than two months on location.

Jakubowska would go on to direct a total of 14 films, including two more which completed the trilogy set out by The Last Stage: The End of Our World (1964) and The Invitation (1985). None of them, however, achieved the same acclaim.

Following its premiere, The Last Stage gained extraordinary popularity around the world. The film was picked up by the United Nations, and distributed in cinemas as far flung as Brazil and Indonesia. In France, screenings were preceded by lectures by Pablo Picasso on the horrors of war.

Yet despite its extraordinary popularity all over the world, Jakubowska’s film wasn’t particularly celebrated in communist Poland, where officials took umbrage at her outspoken female characters. Critics emphasised its flaws, and shunned The Last Stage in rankings, reviews and recommendations. Over the next several dozen years, the film was systematically doomed to oblivion and the director was treated as persona non grata.

It wasn’t until after socialism ended in Poland in 1993, that the film was rediscovered and lauded once more by critics. It was screened at festivals in Telluride Colorado, San Francisco and Creteil. Jakubowska, then in her 80s, was also able to visit these festivals personally, winning over the crowds with her forthright personality.

Leftist Until The End

In the second half of her life, Jakubowska worked at the film school in Łódź, lecturing students for 25 years. She also remained faithful to the ideals of socialism: “I am an incorrigible communist,” she repeated in interviews.

Yet Jakubowska’s ideological stance did not mean that the director was beyond censure by officials or critics. Her female characters were surprisingly dynamic, active and multidimensional for the era, acting of their own accord and taking on challenges. Such representation of a woman was not typical in Polish cinema of the era, causing Jakubowska to fall out of favour among film critics. Removed from other projects, she found herself working on the 1957 children’s film, Król Maciuś I”. “At last,” one of the most important journalists of the era noted drily, “the female film director has become interested in an appropriate topic: children.”

While she remained outspoken in her work, Jakubowska was more guarded about her personal life. Looking back at images and documents today, some historians believe that the director was queer, and that she possibly spent two years after the war in a relationship with her fellow former inmate and The Last Stage co-writer, Gerda Schneider. Jakubowska, however, never spoke publicly on the subject.

Jakubowska worked until the end of her life, directing her final film, The Colours of Loving, in 1988. She passed away in 1998, at the age of 90. Ultimately, she died on the same street in Warsaw where she was born — although in a different apartment.

After Jakubowska’s death, campaigners proposed naming one of Łódź’s streets in the director’s honour. City councilors rejected the idea. Like her seminal film, the mother of Polish cinematography was ultimately passed over for her political views — which officials felt were just too left-wing.

This article is part of our series Women, Recollected, an ongoing project shining a light on the forgotten women pioneers of 20th century culture.

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