Italian neorealist filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo is best known for his masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers; a film which indeed remain relevant today. Seven years earlier Pontecorvo made Kapò, a remarkably honest portrayal of Nazi concentration camps during WWII. The story is handled in a straightforward manner, shot in a black-and-white style which resembled a documentary, while also attempting to tackle difficult issues, but what is most remarkable is that Pontecorvo was able to do this in 1959.
Actress Susan Strasberg was renowned for playing Anne Frank on stage, and when she was not cast in George Stevens’ film version, it instead provided the opportunity to play a much more complex role. Strasberg is Edith, a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl forced to watch her family killed. In order to survive in the concentration camps she manages to take the uniform of a dead prisoner. She takes the identity of Nicole Niepas, a thief that is valued above the Jewish inmates. By assuming the role of kapò, which is essentially a prisoner employed as a warden over the others, Edith becomes a complex character.
Kapò portrays the victims as capable of cruelty and selfishness. At their very worst, Pontecorvo seems to suggest, mankind is capable of the very worst in order to survive. At first Edith only makes choices that harm herself, including sleeping with the German soldiers for extra rations, but she eventually learns to sacrifice others for her own safety. Even the kind prisoners who befriend Edith fall prey to her desperate way of survival. The film offers redemption, both for Edith and mankind, though it shows that this often must come with sacrifice.
This is one film which has been a long time coming on DVD, and is available both in the latest Essential Art House collection, and individually. The insert includes still photos and a brief discussion of the film’ key points.