Wanda Jakubowska Revisited

by Monika Talarczyk (Author)
©2022 Monographs 198 Pages


The book by Monika Talarczyk is devoted to the life and work of Wanda Jakubowska (1907–1998), author of The Last Stage (1948), an icon of women’s cinema, said to be the Mother of All Holocaust Films. The author discovers previously unknown facts in Jakubowska’s biography from the period of her childhood in Russia and her youth, associated with Polish socialists. She also provides a closer look at the director’s activity in post-war production culture as a chairwoman of the film units and a teacher at the £ódŸ Film School. Talarczyk presents Jakubowska’s works in the context of Holocaust studies as well as women’s cinema. The publication includes Jakubowska’s descriptive filmography. The director’s achievements are illustrated by previously unpublished photos from film sets as well as film stills from Jakubowska’s private archive.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part 1. Pioneer on her way to film directing debut
  • 1.1. A girl of the revolution
  • 1.2. It all started with “START”
  • 1.3. Sisters in film
  • 1.4. New women in glass houses
  • 1.5. Film cooperatives: “Krąg” and SAF
  • 1.6. Missing films
  • Part 2. Jakubowska’s cinema of remembrance
  • 2.1. Number 43513
  • 2.2. Variants of The Last Stage screenplay
  • 2.3. Birkenau – out of disgust for women
  • 2.4. Women workers leaving the death factory
  • 2.5. Work songs
  • 2.6. Labour – work – giving birth
  • 2.7. Filmwork of mourning86
  • 2.8. Cinema as the world’s machine of remembrance
  • 2.8.1. Photographs snatched from the concentration camp reality
  • 2.8.2. Women’s bodies as the media of time
  • Part 3. Miss forewoman of Polish cinema
  • 3.1. Soldier of Victory as a super-production
  • 3.2. “START” Film Unit
  • 3.3. Jakubowska and women’s cinema
  • 3.4. Films for children and youth
  • 3.5. The Great Proletariat hits the big screen again
  • Conclusions
  • Wanda Jakubowska’S Filmography (1907–1998)
  • Bibliography
  • Index of names
  • Series index

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Only few people nowadays hail Wanda Jakubowska as “the mother of Polish cinema”. Quite unjustly so. Before her death, she would ironically call herself “nasty” because she was incorrigible in her attachment to the leftist project, even after the collapse of communism. As early as towards the end of the 1960s, her first monographer, Danuta Karcz, described her as “inconvenient”.1 And she indeed turned out inconvenient after communist practice parted ways with Marxism. Jakubowska was judged extremely negatively in the reckoning of the history of Polish cinema between 1945 and 1989. Nonetheless, she triumphed abroad, both after her debut and towards the end of her life. Studies in English devoted to world cinema enumerate her right next to Orson Welles2 and Agnieszka Holland. She was the first to make a feature film set at a concentration camp and one of the first two Polish film directors mentioned in international encyclopaedias of women.3 Her The Last Stage (1948), a concentration camp film with a collective female protagonist, was also the first post-war feature film to gain Polish cinema international recognition. In world cinema, it established the iconography of concentration camp film, authorised by the director’s own autobiographical experience and the authentic shooting location at the former Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. With this genre-defining film and her next camp movies, Jakubowska opposed the vision of the world and human relations demoralised by death camps. She remained faithful to socialist utopia, in which she placed her faith when she was young; neither the Holocaust nor the fall of communism managed to take that faith away from her.

Jakubowska belonged to a generation born in Poland under partitions which was the first to attend universities in independent Poland. But she passed away as the last representative of the generation that sought to ←9 | 10→rebuild the independent, interwar Poland – with its social antagonisms and embarrassing cinematography, a country almost razed to the ground during the war – as People’s Poland, with “the most important of all the arts” as the focus of the state patron’s attention. Not insignificantly, she spent the years 1915–1922 in Russia amid the revolution. When she was reaching adulthood, Marxism was “cosmopolitan, avant-garde, sexy”,4 as Marci Shore brilliantly put it. However, she was passing away with the sense of a lost cause, but remained faithful to leftist ideas until the very end. Jakubowska outlived all her colleagues from the film association “START”, her companions in the resistance movement at Auschwitz, founders of post-war cinema. Her professional biography spans two epochs of cinema – the pre-war and the post-war – including the avant-garde and Socialist Realism: two twentieth-century tendencies introduced a programmatic relation between art and politics; the avant-garde did so at the level of critique of the social order, whereas Socialist Realism, conversely, affirmed the new order. Jakubowska’s life and work embrace nearly the entire twentieth century, with all its breakthroughs.

She was among the prominent women born at the beginning of the twentieth century who declared their attachment to the leftist worldview as something that enabled the transgression of “the second sex”, guaranteed political subjectivity, while responding at the same time to the need to lend women’s experience a political dimension. Experienced by two totalitarianisms, women radicalised their beliefs and activities as politicians, artists, philosophers, exploring the roots of totalitarianism on the one hand, and on the other hand – looking for artistic expression for the idea of humanism that would make art possible after the great wars: Hannah Arendt (1906), Frida Kahlo (1907), Simone de Beauvoir (1908), Wanda Jakubowska (1907), Janina Broniewska (1904), Wanda Wasilewska (1905) and others.

Longevous and always at the heart of events, Jakubowska appears as a fascinating figure in the history of Polish and global cinema. Unfortunately, for a long time she could not count on favourable attention from scholars ←10 | 11→because in Poland after 1989 they pursued a reckoning with artists’ entanglement in relations with the authorities of the Polish People’s Republic. Consolidated after 1989, the “lustration” model of the reception of Wanda Jakubowska and her oeuvre distorted the image of the figure in question and ushered in a selective approach to her filmography. Such hindsight was underpinned with irony and a sense of moral superiority, regardless of whether individuals or entire groups were involved. The tale of the history of Polish cinema was generally underpinned with irony. In Hayden White’s view, European historical awareness “slid down” into irony (one of the basic tropes of historical narrative), embittered by a reality that did not fulfil the hopes invested in the ideals of the French Revolution.5 Beyond doubt, Poles were embittered by the socialist reality, and later became mobilised to overcome the difficulties of the political regime transformation. Approaching the achievements of Polish cinema from the period of People’s Poland with irony, we assumed that they resulted from practices that went against the grain of the state’s cultural policy rather than from the principles of that policy stemming from the postulates of pre-war “START”, co-founded by Jakubowska. Modern-day researchers of production culture reviewed that opinion and came to appreciate the effects of the film industry modernisation in the post-war period6 as well as the concept of work organised in the so-called film units, strongly advocated by Jakubowska, the only woman to head such a unit.7

Hayden White remarked: “The problem may not be how to get into history, but how to get out of it.”8 I believe in the possibility of getting out of ←11 | 12→the mainstream historiographic narrative about cinema by adopting the perspective of minority cinema – for instance, women’s cinema. Jakubowska herself suggested that trope in her last television interview: “I must have opened some kind of gate for women because that used to be a male profession”.9 That is why the book about Jakubowska had to feature numerous interesting supporting heroines, who collaborated with the director. In other words, the concept of “women’s cinema” sheds light on the status of women in the production culture of that era, both of the prominent film director and invisible women filmmakers. Jakubowska’s successes and defeats compel the question about the so-called woman’s question in Polish cinema. Was it an individual excess or an achievement of state cinematography?


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (February)
women’s cinema Holocaust films gender studies production studies film history Polish film
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 198 pp., 4 fig. col., 26 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Monika Talarczyk (Author)

Monika Talarczyk – PhD, a film scholar, and professor at the Łódź Film School in Poland. She is an author of three books dedicated Polish women film directors and numerous papers related to the history of Polish cinema. Particularly interested in women's cinema, gender studies and minor cinema.


Title: Wanda Jakubowska Revisited