Kapo (1960; Gillo Pontecorvo)
By Daniel Barnes
At the age of 17, I saw Schindler’s List in the movie theater along with everyone else and loved it along with everyone else. I never revisited the Spielberg film, but I remain somewhat suspicious of my affection for the picture. This is mainly because I saw it at a time when I was highly susceptible to commercial and critical hype. Two decades removed, Schindler’s List seems to embody everything that I reject in biopics and modern historical cine-texts, including the implicit assertion that the film is underline-important for merely existing.
Moreover, Spielberg’s Best Picture winner continued Hollywood’s ugly tendency to tell stories of oppressed races, religions, and cultures through the lens of a (usually white) privileged class that allows freedom and dignity to exist. It’s even more vexing to consider that critics at the time considered this perspective on the Jewish Holocaust definitive, both historically and cinematically. That ignores the long history of films from around the world that already dealt with the brutal realities of the Holocaust. One of those films is director Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1960 debut Kapo.
“The Nightmare of Selection”
The protagonist of Kapo is not only a Jew, and one with a far more tortured and complicated inner life than Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler, but also a young girl. As the film opens, 14-year-old Edith (played capably but not quite transcendently by Susan Strasberg) is finishing her music lessons. As she dons her jacket with the telltale gold star, she assures her teacher she will be “safe in Paris.” When Edith returns home, she sees Nazis loading her family into a truck. She runs to join them rather than take her neighbor’s advice to flee.
When Edith and her family arrive at the camp, they encounter the first of many brutal separation processes, as children get pried away from their parents. While Pontecorvo non-graphically treats the wanton murder and brutality at the camps with a queasy everyday-ness, the real horror in Kapo is in the “nightmare of selection,” a careless and easily fudged balance sheet of life and death.
Realizing the low value the Nazis place on them, the prisoners live in constant fear of inspection. Many try to exhibit usefulness that easily crosses over into collaboration. For her part, Edith escapes execution by relinquishing her religion and assuming the identity of a dead thief named Nicole. Therefore, she gets transferred to a work camp rather than perishing at Auschwitz alongside her parents. Since the former Nicole was a criminal, she immediately occupies the highest perch in the social order of concentration camp prisoners, with Jews occupying the lowest rung.
“Savagery Begetting Savagery”
Kapo exhibits a lot of the classic pitfalls of a first film, many of which Pontecorvo would iron out in his follow-up picture, The Battle of Algiers. Out-of-place elements include the intrusive musical score, the idolatry effect of Strasberg’s too-perfect tears, the pointless romantic angle, and the weighty symbolism that occasionally lands with a crash. We don’t need Nicole to obtain a black cat named Faust to understand that she struck a Faustian bargain.
However, the film, shot in gorgeously grainy black-and-white by cinematographer Alexasandar Sekulovic, also offers a clear-eyed look at savagery begetting savagery. It stands in stark contrast to the shameless tear-jerking of films like Life is Beautiful, The Book Thief and even Schindler’s List. In survive-at-all-costs mode, Nicole becomes first a whore for the Nazi guards and then a “kapo,” a sort of “house Nazi” who abuses and informs on her fellow prisoners in exchange for food and other favors.
At its best, the film offers the clear-eyed objectivity of a journalist, while still establishing a moral outrage. Pontecorvo was a Communist, and one of the chief concerns of Kapo is with the hardscrabble class order that exists in even the most dehumanizing circumstances. Without social strata, the prisoners are utterly undefined as people. Kapo seems to argue that class systems are both inherently evil and inherently human, much like inhumanity itself.