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Campus Closeup: Marek Haltof

Marek Haltof’s (English) hometown of Cieszyn, Poland, is two hours by train from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum. More than 1.1 million lost their lives at the former concentration camp, including Polish political prisoners and Jews later transported there under the Nazi extermination plan. What remains of the site has been preserved as an authentic symbol of the Holocaust and a moving tribute to those who succumbed to or survived atrocities committed there.

One Auschwitz survivor, Wanda Jakubowska, directed what is arguably “the mother of all Holocaust films.” The Last Stage is a dramatization of her experience. It also incorporates stories she collected from fellow prisoners, some of whom returned to Auschwitz as actors when the film was shot on location after World War II. As part of his 2014 NMU Peter White Scholar Award, Haltof will complete his book about Jakubowska’s defining film.

The Last Stage is a point of reference for any film about Nazi German concentration and extermination camp,” said Haltof. “The images of camp life appear in a number of subsequent American films, including Steven Spielberg’s award-winning Schindler’s List, The Diary of Anne Frank and Sophie’s Choice. It took three years to produce and release, in part because the Polish director and German screenwriter were both women and it was a paternalistic society. Also, Polish authorities were reluctant to release the film because it was during the Soviet occupation of Poland and they were sensitive to similarities between the camps and the Soviet gulags. But after Jakubowska took the script to Moscow and got the blessing of [Joseph] Stalin, there were no more barriers.”

The title of Haltof’s book is Screening Auschwitz: Wanda Jakubowska’s The Last Stage (1948) and the Politics of Commemoration. The NMU award will support the completion of that work and two other projects: an expanded second edition of his Historical Dictionary of Polish Cinema; and preliminary research on Screening the Past: Contested Memories in Central European Cinema, which focuses on national responses to the Holocaust and a reexamination of the Communist past. Haltof will conduct additional research in Polish archives, libraries and museums and participate in film events related to his works in progress.

Haltof’s previous scholarly writing has explored the cinema of Poland, Australia and the United States—all places he has lived over the course of his academic and professional careers. He also wrote a book on Dead Poets Society director Peter Weir.

This is Haltof’s second NMU Peter White Scholar Award. His first in 2006 supported his book, Polish Film and the Holocaust: Politics and Memory. Haltof was encouraged by that project, which included a chapter on The Last Stage, to launch an in-depth exploration of the film’s historical, political and ideological layers.

“The proximity of the traumatic experience, Jakubowska’s own Marxist beliefs and the policy of the Communist regime in Poland influenced the final shape of the film. It also reflects the status of post-1945 debates in central Europe about whether Nazi camps should be commemorated and how. There were voices that they should be leveled, turned into agricultural land and forgotten. A museum was created at Auschwitz-Birkenau in July 1947 and, with more than 1.4 million visitors annually, it is now one of the most popular museums in Europe. 

Haltof will be on sabbatical during the 2014-15 academic year to work on his projects.