In an age where Holocaust dramas and fictional recreations of the concentration camp experience are perhaps too plentiful—how could a mere movie come close to communicating the inhumanity of such an event, even in microcosm?—Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1959 Kapò (Criterion: Essential Art House) is something of a revelation. It’s not the earliest concentration camp drama, though they were rare in the era (Alain Resnais’ discreet, poetic and haunting nonfiction meditation Night and Fog was only a few years earlier), but it is the earliest I’ve seen. Was the history still a fresh wound that needed time to, if not heal, at least scar over before gingerly exploring the tender area? Or was the horror just too great to even comprehend?
Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian Jew with a commitment to tackling politically volatile issues head on, took the challenge with this harrowing drama of a teenage Parisian Jew (American actress Susan Strasberg) who is literally swept up off the streets and sent to Auschwitz within minutes of the opening. Pontecorvo doesn’t give us time to settle into the situation and it’s only as when we see SS uniforms on the street that we notice the yellow star on her coat. Edith is just a kid, a fourteen-year-old girl who hasn’t the self-preservation to run when she watches her parents herded into a truck outside her building. Even when separated in the camp, all she can think to do is look for her parents and look for a way out, a futile gesture that ultimately save her life. While the rest of the youngsters wait patiently, unaware that they are marked for the gas chambers, she sees the reality of the camp where prisoners are stacked in bunks and the bodies of the dead are stacked like cordwood everywhere else. She’s ushered out of the cold by a mercenary survivor (an uncharacteristically generous gesture on her part, but perhaps there’s a jab of maternal protectiveness in her) and into the office of the camp doctor, who takes her coat (with the Star of David brand of death) and gives her the identity of recently deceased thief. “You’re lucky,” he says. “If no one had died tonight, I wouldn’t be able to help you.” That’s what counts for luck here.
Edith, a girl in an incomprehensibly merciless prison of grown woman, is renamed Nicole and sent to a work camp in Poland. We watch her move from shock to desperation to resignation, losing her innocence and generosity along the way. Desperate to escape the miserable winter workday, she sacrifices her innocence and trades her body for the relative comfort in the officer’s quarters: food, warmth, a few hours out of the work detail. In a single cut she’s shucked off her girlish openness for hard-shelled survivalism and cold mask-like expression. A perfect candidate for Kapò, a kind of prison trustee who works for the wardens, policing her own people in exchange for better quarters, food and clothes (the kapòs wear coats in the cold, the camp population just thin dresses).
Pontecorvo recreates the camp in vivid detail and fills the background with the kind of exhausting activity that seems designed merely to keep the prisoners too tired to even consider escape. A whole gallery of figures weave through the film, from the political prisoner (Emmanuelle Riva) trying to keep the resistance alive in a place where keeping the body alive is hard enough to the elderly attempting to hide injuries and infirmities that would get them sent back to Germany (and certain dearth) to the mercenary survivors who will make the necessary negotiations to get them a better berth in this miserable existence. And there’s a love story too, of sorts: Russian men moved into the pens next door (separated by electrified barbed wire) and one still-idealistic soldier (Laurent Terzieff) rekindles an ember of emotion in the otherwise shut-down Edith.
You can feel the struggle between the narrative’s impulse toward melodrama and Pontecorvo’s efforts to play them down (not always successfully) and Pontecorvo himself later remarked that he would take out the romance if he had the film to do over. But the documentary detail of the physical recreation (enhanced by Marcello Gatti’s cinematography, which achieves a grainy newsreel look) and the matter-of-fact evocation of life under such conditions gives it a power beyond the plot and Strasberg’s evolution from terrified girl to emotionally numb survivor gives it a story: what will a human being do to live? What is her responsibility to herself and those around her? Where does the victim end and the victimizer begin? That’s she’s barely sixteen years old by the end of the film only makes it all the more devastating. As a curious footnote, Strasberg had earlier created the role of Anne Frank on Broadway but was passed over for the film in favor of Millie Perkins. Kapò came out the same year as the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank and, for all of the criticisms it faced (notably the love story, but also the attempt film’s rather restrained use of melodramatic techniques within the realism), is by far the more provocative film. Fifteen years after the camps were liberated by the Allies, Pontecorvo attempted to show audiences what the experience was must have been like, not just the aftermath seen in newsreels.
The film has been unavailable for years in any form and makes its home video debut on Criterion’s no-frills “Essential Art House” line, normally reserved for reissues of previously released classics in stripped-down, bargain-priced editions. It’s in Italian and German with English subtitles and features no supplements beyond an insert with a short essay on the film by Michael Koresky (read the essay on the Criterion website here).
Reviews of the new disc by Dennis Lim (at the Los Angeles Times) and Michael Atkinson (at IFC.com) have looked at the film in the context of a landmark review by Jacques Rivette and its influence on critic Serge Daney, who took Rivette’s criticisms as the starting point for a critical battle cry. Check out those pieces for more information and better insight on this significant critical stand than I can provide.
But also note this: Pontecorvo seemed to take the very issues that Rivette had with the film concerning the aesthetization of evil, of trying to tackle something so incomprehensibly inhuman as the Holocaust within a fictional narrative film and its reductive storytelling tools, to heart in The Battle of Algiers, his next major narrative film and a landmark of political filmmaking. Gone are melodramatic story arcs and character dramas that he used (even gingerly) in Kapò and in its place a model of commitment and action. The Battle of Algiers is a portrait of the political and moral issues of French rules in Algiers and the revolutionary movement for independence, and a veritable guide to creating the political structure of a resistance movement, complete with an unflinching engagement with the realities of the violence and the moral quandaries that such a movement will face.