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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

OSTATNI ETAP / THE LAST STAGE (1948)

Simply finding a Holocaust film from Poland so soon after WWII is remarkable; finding such a strong one, and directed by a woman, a former prisoner of the camps, is completely unexpected. Partially filmed on the grounds of Auschwitz less than two years after the war, Wanda Jakubowski was undoubtedly the first female director to make a film on the subject, and surely the only Auschwitz survivor ever to do so. So, as Arthur Miller once said, ‘attention must be paid.’ More important is the unexpectedly blunt & realistic treatment of life at the camps she was able to achieve. Saved by her abilities as a translator (the rest of her family met a swift end), Jakubowski's film is at its considerable best recreating the big picture of getting thru the days amid pointless drills, starvation rations and mass assemblies before every new atrocity. It’s less convincing as the war nears an end and we see prisoners plotting escape & sabotage; prisoner-of-war escape film stuff. It's well handled, except for a last minute surprise reprieve, but somehow less specific than what's come before. Jakubowski also can’t avoid turning her Nazi commanders into one-note villains (no doubt many were), but the ‘kapos’ & collaborators are given real human dimensions even at their most despicable. There’s an overly large dose of noble sacrifice from the Russian Communist contingent (this is a Polish film from 1948), but there are also prominent roles for brave Jews & Gypsies. The only available edition is a rather smeary Polart/Facets DVD, but don’t let that put you off. Where has this been hiding?

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