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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Berlinale Classics Event: Imaging the Unimaginable: The Shoah in post-war, Eastern European films

The Retrospective section is the film history program of the festival, and within that section is the Berlinale Classics, where digitally restored and rediscovered films get to celebrate their premiers. This year, two of the six Classics were Eastern European films from the late forties which depicted the horrors of the Holocaust. THE LAST STAGE (Ostatni Etap, 1948) was one of the first films to depict the Holocaust and was created by two survivors, Wanda Jakubowska and Gerda Schneider. The Czechoslovakian film DISTANT JOURNEY (Daleká cesta, 1949), was lauded for its groundbreaking cinematography where historic footage was blended with a love story, but was ultimately banned by Stalinist Censorship. The panel with film historians Michal Bregant and Monika Talarczyk analyzed how these films broke ground in depicting the horrors of the Holocaust and the impact their Eastern European focus had on their production, release, and reception.
When developing THE LAST STAGE, Jakubowska wanted to make a realistic film without using Nazi footage and without exposing victims to having to revisit demeaning circumstances through graphic imagery. This was a fine line to tread, particularly as many of the actors were survivors of the camps and the film was shot on location at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Monika Talarczyk noted that for many of the actors, this film was a sort of exposure therapy; by bringing the women back to the camp to relive their experiences in a safe setting and amongst others who understood their trauma, they were able to find some peace. THE LAST STAGE was internationally lauded, and was nominated for the Grand International Award at Venice and for a BAFTA in 1950. Its impact on Holocaust films was immense, and it has been quoted a number of times, including in Spielberg’s SCHINDLER’S LIST. Wanda Jakubowska would go on to make a dozen more films, two of which are also about the Holocaust. However, as an ardent Communist her works reflected her views and have fallen into relative obscurity since the end of the Soviet Union.
Despite being released only one year later, DISTANT JOURNEY did not make such a large impact. Alfréd Radok’s DISTANT JOURNEY was, at its heart, a love story about a Jewish woman and her Gentile husband. Unlike THE LAST STAGE, Radok used Nazi footage (such as clips from Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL) interspersed with that of newsreels showing the bodies of liberated camps to make an impression. While DISTANT JOURNEY was initially supported by the regime for its Socialist Realism, soon after its release it faced censorship as the Soviet Union began to enforce stronger anti-Semitic policies. This was reflected in the lack of publication of Jewish works such as Kafka, and it wasn’t until the sixties that Czechoslovakians would be able to start openly discussing the Shoah again. DISTANT JOURNEY was banned from a Czech premier and was only shown in some small theaters until it was banned outright for the next forty years. It wasn’t until 1991, after the Velvet Revolution, that it finally got a wide release on television where it was praised by critics.
One of the great privileges of being able to attend the Berlinale every year is the opportunity to go to these Retrospective events that always open my eyes to aspects of filmmaking and filmmakers that I had never heard about before. Both THE LAST STAGE and DISTANT JOURNEY were previously unknown to me, but they are important pieces of both Shoah and cinematic history that should not be relegated to some forgotten place in the archives. Learning the background of the filmmakers just added another fascinating layer to the films themselves and the event was a wonderful supplement that led me to read even more on the topic. That is the real positive of the whole section, inspiring new audiences to learn more about classic cinema and its history.

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