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Kapo: Essential Art House

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Cast: Susan Strasberg, Emmanuelle Riva

(US DVD: 13 Apr 2010)

A few years before he shocked the world with The Battle of Algiers, Italian Gillo Pontecorvo made one of the first major films about the Holocaust. His Kapo (1959) follows 14-year-old Edith (Susan Strasberg in a remarkable performance) as she navigates the tumultuous waters of a concentration camp in the final years of the war. A Jew, Edith has taken on the identity of a dead thief named Nicole, and has thus avoided a certain death at Dachau. More than this, she has gained a certain prestige among her sisters at the camp – those with a black triangle (for thieves, among other criminals) are sometimes made into camp leaders, or Kapos.

Edith/Nicole is, at first, appalled by this idea, and endeavors to keep her head down and survive as a prisoner, following the advice of her idealistic friend Terese (Emmanuelle Riva). But, as the months and years pass, and she is faced with an interminable series of impossible decisions, her ethical compass begins to break down. She begins sleeping with guards in order to get more food. She shows her breasts to a would-be executioner to spare her from the gas chamber. She steals a potato from a friend. Finally, she is made into a Kapo, a literal extension of the Reich in the camp.

Reviled and feared by her erstwhile mates, Nicole grows stronger, more confident; her power grows with each show of authority over her former friends. When, in the final months of the war, a group of captured Red Army soldiers are brought to the camp, Nicole is shaken by feelings of tenderness for one of them. She then agrees to play a crucial role in the planning and execution of a mass escape.

This highly divisive film alternates between powerful realism and sanitized melodrama. Famously detested by some critics for its false entertainment values (Jacques Rivette wrote in his review that Pontecorvo “deserves nothing but the most profound contempt” for trying to frame a shot of a dying inmate in an artful way), Kapo is also praised in some corners for its bravery in attempting to depict the horrors of the Shoah long before other filmmakers would touch the subject. To my eyes, both sides are correct, at least in part.

The idea of a “sort of” Holocaust depiction is ridiculous – indeed, it is offensive. Yet how graphic does it have to be in order to overcome this problem? How, in other words, can a film about the Horror be realistic and respectful at the same time? How does one frame this kind of evil without the work becoming torture porn?

Pontecorvo’s cop out – the ham-fisted inclusion of a love story and a melodramatic moralistic ending – is deeply troubling. However, it is also a perhaps necessary approach. No one wants (or needs) to watch a real Holocaust film. That’s why no one has ever pretended to make one. From the red coat in Schindler’s List to the faux-goosestep in Life is Beautiful, filmmakers have resisted the real in favour of the sentimental. Since they want us to watch their movies, this is probably a good move. Yet these are also the very reasons why many viewers leave such films feeling frustrated, angry, and disappointed. The Horror is enough – why the sentimentalism?

In Kapo we are presented with an array of complex questions of morality, and Pontecorvo does offer some indelible images. However, the triumph of the lengthy and realistic transformation of kindly Edith into the hard-nosed Nicole is utterly undone by her brief and unfathomable transformation into a love-sick teenager. After investing so much – emotionally, any film on the Horror is exhausting and traumatic – we are robbed by the spectacularly unlikely final act. One finds it impossible to recommend such a massive failure of vision. 

This edition, released as part of the inexpensive Essential Art House series, offers no extras at all.


Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu

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