Jakubowska, Wanda (1907—)

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Jakubowska, Wanda (1907—)

Noted Polish film director whose career featured the 1948 film The Last Stop, depicting life in the German concentration camp at Auschwitz. Name variations: Jacubowska. Pronunciation: Ya-koo-BOV-ska. Born on November 10, 1907, in Warsaw, Poland, then a part of the Russian empire; studied art history at the University of Warsaw.

Was a founding member of START (1929); completed first documentary (1930); completed first feature film (1939); captured by the Nazi authorities in Poland (1942); sent to the concentration camp atAuschwitz (1943); returned to Auschwitz to make The Last Stop (1945–47); won International Peace Prize for The Last Stop (1951).


Report One (1930); Report Two (1931); Impressions, The Sea (1932); We Build (1934); On the Banks of the Niemen (1939); The Last Stop (The Last Stage, 1948); The Atlantic Story (1955); Soldier of Victory (1953); Farewell to the Devil (1956); King Matthew I (1958); Encounter in the Shadows (Encounters in the Dark, 1960); It Happened Yesterday (1960); The End of Our World (1964); The Hot Line (1965); At 150 Kilometers Per Hour (1971); Ludwik Warynski (1978); Dance in Chains (The Mazurka Danced at Dawn, 1979); Invitation to Dance (Invitation, 1986); Colors of Love (1987).

Wanda Jakubowska's career as one of Poland's most important film directors was marked by the spectacular success of The Last Stop (also known as The Last Stage or in Poland Ostatni etap), which she completed in 1947. Like several contributors to Poland's lively post-World War II cinema, Jakubowska began her career in the 1930s. But the war gave her an intense and unforgettable set of experiences. Drawing on her own time as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Ravensbrück, Jakubowska created a memorable picture of the horrors and dehumanization of these victims of Nazism and of the heroism of those who tried to resist.

This film was emblematic of Jakubowska's work in cinema from the early 1930s, since she and her colleagues in the innovative, left-wing START movement were characterized by their political engagement. It also reflected the relatively free artistic climate that existed during the immediate post-World War II period in Poland. As Communist control first intensified then weakened after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Jakubowska's work was influenced by these new political currents in her country.

The Poland in which Jakubowska grew up and worked as a film director was one of the most troubled countries of the 20th century. At

the time of her birth, Poland was still divided, as it had been since the close of the 18th century, among its three powerful neighbors: Russia, Austria, and Germany. While Jakubowska was still a child, Polish territory became a chief battleground in World War I. By the fall of 1915, powerful German and Austrian assaults had pushed Russia out of its Polish territories for the remainder of the conflict. A revived Poland was born at the close of World War I when the three countries that had been its occupiers all suffered defeat and revolution. In 1920, an invasion by Russian forces, now the army of the new Soviet state, was defeated at the gates of Warsaw.

In the 1920s, Poland went from being a nominal democracy to a military dictatorship under General Joseph Pilsudski. When he died in 1935, only to be succeeded by other military leaders, the revival of both Russian and German strength was beginning to threaten the existence of the new Poland. The threat became reality when the first campaign of World War II in September 1939 put much of Poland under the brutal dictatorship of Adolf Hitler with the eastern part of the country under the rule of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

[Jakubowska's The Last Stop] was the first full-length film to bring international attention to the existence of Polish cinema.

—Frank Bren

Poland experienced almost six horrendous years under German occupation. A key feature of the period was the German attempt to crush Polish culture, partly carried out by the murder or imprisonment of the Polish intellectual class. When Poland was liberated by the Soviet Union in 1944 and 1945, it soon fell under its domination. Up until 1953, this meant brutal repression and strict controls on Polish cultural life. Thereafter, with the death of Stalin, Poland was permitted an increasing—although often interrupted—process of cultural liberalization.

Wanda Jakubowska was born in Warsaw, then located in the Polish provinces of the Russian Empire, on November 10, 1907. Little has been recorded about her family background and early life before she attended the University of Warsaw as a student of art history. It was there she became interested in film and found a circle of colleagues likewise enthusiastic about film's potential as a medium of political enlightenment.

There was little place for such individuals in the conventional Polish film industry that had begun shortly after the start of the 20th century. In the years following World War I, Polish filmmakers produced a large stock of full-length films. For the most part, these were popular melodramas designed for a mass audience and heavily dependent on the model set by Hollywood. Historical films often featured anti-German or, more frequently, anti-Russian themes, becoming what Frank Bren calls "grudgemovies." A relatively distinguished example of the genre which received some international praise was Hurricane, a 1928 production directed by Joseph Lejtes and set during Poland's 1863 revolt against Russian domination.

In fact, most of the movies Polish audiences saw came directly from abroad with American productions dominating the scene. The Polish government had no particular interest in filmmaking. When it was not actively censoring works with a left-wing coloration, it offered occasional help—such as the use of army facilities—but only for bombastic patriotic films. The industry was dominated by fly-by-night entrepreneurs who rarely finished more than a handful of films before fading from sight.

Wanda Jakubowska, along with future luminaries of the Polish cinema like Alexander Ford, was a founding member of START, the "Organization for the Promotion of Artistic Films," which appeared in the fall of 1929. START aimed at creating a film school and other activities designed to promote a new era in Polish filmmaking. These politically active young artists looked to the Soviet film of their era as an example of what they wished to accomplish: the use of the mass medium as a tool for social improvement. Writes Bren, "START attacked the dullness of the national cinema and also its technical poverty," and it sought "to root Polish films in reality."

Poland's conservative military governments were hostile to anything of the sort. Thus, START's credo, "Fight for films for the public good," proclaimed in 1932, was unlikely to please the authorities. The Polish dictatorship's suspicious censorship office permitted the organization to be registered. The censor required, however, that the politically suggestive word "Promotion" be replaced by "Friends." The organization grew to include 300 members, but it did not last more than a few years. Internal conflicts led to its demise in 1935, though it was reconstituted two years later. Despite its shaky origins, START provided a base from which the postwar cinema emerged.

In addition to Ford and Jakubowska, the members of START included such future celebrities of the Polish film world as Jerzy Toeplitz and Stanislaw Wohl. Beginning with a desire for social activism, they tended to produce work in the form of documentaries, such as Ford's The Way of Youth. Completed in 1936, this powerful study of a sanitorium for Jewish children provoked the censor to ban the film in Poland. Jakubowska followed this pattern, completing a number of documentaries throughout the course of the 1930s. She was able to take on the task of making a feature film, On the Banks of the Niemen, a work based on the novel by Eliza Orzeszkowa , only at the close of the decade. Among the members of START, only Ford was able to make full-length films during the entire course of the 1930s.

Jakubowska's career was abruptly suspended by the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. Her now completed feature film, On the Banks of the Niemen, had been scheduled for its premier on September 15, but the work could not be shown in the midst of Poland's desperate defense of its territory against German attacks. The film has been lost, apparently forever, since Jakubowska entrusted parts of the negative to three friends, not one of whom survived the war and the German occupation of Poland.

By the wartime years, according to some sources, Jakubowska was now a member of the Polish Workers' Party, the core of the future Polish Communist Party. In this period, filmmaking became impossible due to the conditions of the occupation and the removal of equipment from Poland to Nazi Germany. As a political activist, Jakubowska managed to work against the Nazis by helping to operate an underground press, until, in October 1942, she was arrested and shipped off to confinement. Held for six months in the notorious Gestapo Pawiak prison in Warsaw, she was then sent to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in her own country, where she spent most of the following years of the war. Jakubowska was evacuated to the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany during the conflict's final months. In later years, Jakubowska claimed that she owed her survival in these two concentration camps to her ability to transform her experiences in her mind into the raw material for a future

documentary. She was determined that she would make a film on this hideous subject.

In the aftermath of the war, Jakubowska found that a new film industry was emerging. The wartime period had nearly destroyed the Polish film industry, with its leading figures either going into exile, like Stanislaw Wohl, or, like Jakubowska, suffering imprisonment under the Nazis. Three-quarters of Poland's movie theaters closed in the years of World War II, and filmmaking—except for shooting clandestine documentary footage showing the horrors of the occupation—came to a halt.

The revival took the form of a nationalized endeavor, sponsored by the government. A government of the left, containing a substantial number of Communists, came into power in 1945; this meant substantial official support for the country's nationalized film industry, Film Polski. The model was the Soviet Union. There, the founder for the revolutionary state V.I. Lenin had early recognized the propaganda potential of film. The new center of the industry became Lodz, which had suffered far less destruction during the war than the capital city of Warsaw. Hundreds of new theaters opened, and a film workshop was started in Cracow; subsequently relocated to Lodz, it developed into the Higher School of Film. Its founder was Antoni Bohdziewicz, who had worked underground during the war years to shoot documentary film. Wohl recalled traveling to Berlin and visiting the smaller studios, whose equipment, unlike that of the major German studios, had not yet been seized by Soviet troops. He managed to amass about $2 million worth of cameras, recording devices, and other key tools for cinematography.

Jakubowska also found that a period of relative artistic freedom existed in the years immediately after 1945, with the full weight of a Stalinist-style Polish dictatorship coming only at the close of the decade. The combination of government support—in place of the right-wing censorship of the interwar period—and a relatively relaxed cultural climate led to a number of distinguished films about the wartime years coming from Film Polski. Key figures from START were now able to operate with resources unknown in the 1930s, and the prewar organization dominated the new Polish film. Ford's 1949 film Border Street set out to show the bond between Polish Catholics and Jews in occupied Warsaw, and Jakubowska, the previous year, came out with The Last Stop, her most memorable film.

The Last Stop had been put into production in May 1945 and work on it was completed in May 1947. It fit into a larger trend in postwar Polish filmmaking that focused on the immense effects and the vivid memories of World War II. The first feature film to come out of these stressful conditions was director Leonard Buczkowski's Forbidden Songs in 1947. Set in wartime Warsaw, Forbidden Songs, which centered on a Polish musician collecting the popular songs sung in the streets during the Nazi years, was criticized for presenting less than a total condemnation of the German occupying authorities. According to Frank Turaj, the film managed to "exemplify the indomitable nature and tough humor of the common man," but it had to be withdrawn for ideological revisions. Nonetheless, its initial showing drew enormous crowds and showed the hunger in Polish audiences for art and entertainment that reflected their recent, horrendous experiences.

Jakubowska used vastly different materials to create The Last Stop, employing her own experiences along with historical documentation in the form of German records and the memoirs of other prisoners. The screenplay from which she worked was done in collaboration with Gerda Schneider , a German woman who had been a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz. Jakubowska had first conceived the idea of a film about Auschwitz immediately upon arriving at the dreaded camp. Working with two talented young assistants, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Jan Rybkowski, she presented a restrained picture of camp life that combined the suffering of the inmates with their will to live and their solidarity with one another.

Made with a combination of documentary and dramatic elements, The Last Stop did not try to tell a linear story. Rather, it abandoned the unity of a single person's experience to bring together numerous characters and plots. As Turaj writes, it was "as if someone were narrating in a voice choked with emotion, not able to tell something in a linear way." In a low-key but compelling fashion, the film presents the women prisoners arriving at Auschwitz and the way in which most of them were immediately selected to be gassed and then burned in the camp's crematoria. A particularly harrowing scene in the film shows camp officials torturing a woman who is going through childbirth. A note of hope comes at the film's close when several inmates manage to escape.

Jakubowska's great film drew particular strength from the fact that many of the performers, like Jakubowska herself, had been confined in Auschwitz. Its production crew consisted largely of women, many of whom had also been prisoners at Auschwitz, and there were noted performances from actresses Barbara Krapińska and Wanda Bartówna with Aleksandra Slaska and Alina Janowska in supporting roles. The Last Stop had its world premier on March 5, 1948, in Prague at a festival of Slavic film, and was subsequently hailed at the 1948 Marienbad Film Festival. Shown in 60 countries, the film demonstrated to an international audience some of the potential of a reviving Polish film industry. The Last Stop earned its director the Communist bloc's International Peace Prize in 1951, but it was also an achievement Jakubowska was never able to match even though her career continued for four decades. Nevertheless, writes Ephraim Katz, her films were "influential in the development of post-WWII Polish cinema."

The state monopoly that had been created after World War II became increasingly heavy-handed in the 1940s and early 1950s. In these years, Soviet control over Eastern Europe tightened, Communist parties were purged of anyone suspected of disloyalty to Moscow, and the artistic world was expected to toe the line. At a filmmakers' conference in Wila in southern Poland in 1949, top political leaders set the harsh guidelines for Polish cinema. "Socialist realism," with its obligation to reeducate society using positive heroes waging a victorious class struggle under the direction of the Communist Party, had to become the central approach. Notes Turaj: "Few filmmakers, under the circumstances, could rise above mediocrity."

Jakubowska apparently found it impossible to escape the strictures of the time. Alexander Ford did so by making historical epics such as Chopin's Youth, which appeared in 1952. By contrast, Jakubowska's second postwar film, made in these years of political repression, was Soldier of Victory, completed in 1953. The film included all of the political cliches of the time, and it stands in sad contrast to the achievement of The Last Stop. It tells the story of General Karol Swierczewski, a Pole living in the Soviet Union who rises to the rank of general in the Soviet army before being assassinated by Ukrainian nationalists after the conclusion of World War II.

The harsh political climate of the Stalinist years softened in the mid-1950s, and Polish cinema experienced change as the government decentralized its control of the industry. What had been a state monopoly was now transformed into separate, semiautonomous film units. Dominated by a distinguished director, each unit could work without onerous government control. The government retained the right to approve the script and, after the film's completion, to control its distribution and promotion. Jakubowska and other veterans of START, such as Alexander Ford and Jerzy Toeplitz, obtained the leadership of some units in May 1955. This relatively relaxed system eventually grew to allow films increasingly critical of the state to be completed and presented to an international audience.

Although younger filmmakers began to dominate the scene in the 1960s, and the reform currents begun in the 1950s were at times reversed, Jakubowska continued to make films at regular intervals during the various stages of Poland's political evolution. She turned away from politics in 1958 with King Matthew I, a technicolor film made for children. In 1960, she returned to the topic of World War II with Encounter in the Shadows, which told the story of Magdalena, a Polish pianist touring Germany. The young woman finds herself in the same city to which she had been sent as a slave laborer during the course of the war.

Wanda Jakubowska returned to Auschwitz to make a second picture about the concentration camp. Entitled The End of the World, it was completed in 1964. Like her other work, it failed in the eyes of most critics to reach the level achieved in The Last Stop. She continued to make films in the next two decades. The Mazurka Danced at Dawn was finished in 1979, and, at the apparent close of her career, Invitation to the Dance appeared in 1986 and Colors of Love in 1987.


Bren, Frank. World Cinema 1: Poland. London: Flicks Books, 1986.

Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey. Women Film Directors: An International Bio-critical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Karcz, Danuta. Wanda Jakubowska. Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1967 (in German).

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper, 1994.

Michalek, Boleslaw, and Frank Turaj. The Modern Cinema of Poland. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Slater, Thomas, ed. Handbook of Soviet and East European Films and Filmmakers. NY: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Smith, Sharon. Women Who Make Movies. NY: Hopkins and Blake, 1975.

suggested reading:

Dziewanowski, M.K. Poland in the Twentieth Century. NY: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Quart, Barbara Koenig. Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema. NY: Praeger, 1988.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California