Sunday 11 February 2007

Kapò (1959) Gillo Pontecorvo

We're back in Nazi persecution of the Jews territory again, but this time around it's an Italian film, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo who also made the stunning The Battle of Algiers, seven years after this one. Pontecorvo was a Jew himself, and was involved in resistance work during the war, so he knew what he was talking about when he co-wrote this with Franco Solinas. Unlike The Shop on Main Street though, this one takes us beyond the town boundaries, so we see where the Jews go after being packed onto the trains.

Our heroine is Edith, played by the young Susan Strasberg. She's a fourteen year old pianist, who is shipped off to the camps with her family, but she quickly escapes from her block to trade places with a dead criminal, with the aid of a doctor who is a political prisoner. This way she avoids the gas chamber for a work camp.

The film is obviously far more brutal than The Shop on Main Street, and the dark black and white photography is suitably oppressive. It's awful, literally, as it well should be. Pontecorvo shows us images that aren't easily forgotten, but never dwells on them for supposed cinematic effect: children are packed into bunks like battery hens, endless groups of people are run naked into gas chambers and people who drop dead are thrown into mass graves. None of this is pretty, which of course it shouldn't be, but it's starkly so.

The brutality sets the scene, but it doesn't pervade the film. After all, two hours of that would be nigh on unbearable. It merely defines how pointless it is for the women, who comprise most of the main cast, to resist the situation they've been thrown into. The lesson is to survive, at almost any cost, until it's all over and the Red Army arrives to save the day. It doesn't take long for Edith, hiding under the name of Nicole, to find out how best to survive. She becomes a whore for the guards and soon a kapo, the guard for her block.

The problem with the film is that some of the cast, Susan Strasberg included, seem to rise above their situations a little too blatantly. Strasberg in particular looks way too clean and pretty in the camp, and even too happy given her situation. After all, she's a kapo by necessity of circumstance, not because she wants to. There are points when she seems tortured by her conscience but not often, even while planning escape. She can do the horrified look with wide eyes and tears, and gets the opportunity, but it doesn't come often. She can really do the lost and frightened look. What she can't do is the cold dark nothingness look and that's really what's needed most in this story. That omission hits the believability of the whole thing. It's a powerful movie but it comes up short, even with its superb finale.

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