Gillo Pontecorvo's underappreciated Kapo (1959) a French, Italian and Yugoslavian co-production, was one of the earliest feature films to focus on life inside the concentration camps apart from Eastern Bloc productions such as Wanda Jakubowska's The Last Stop (Poland, 1948). Pontecorvo's second feature film is tremendously assured in terms of direction, with many striking lateral tracking shots and extensive use of staging in depth. While its style is more deliberately polished and stately than the raw and documentary-like The Battle of Algiers (1965), Pontecorvo does mix in documentary footage at one point and regularly uses a duplicate negative to give the film a drab, contrasted appearance. His characteristic fascination with human faces is reflected both in the casting and in the way the film is shot and edited, with some shots serving as brief but indelible portraits of nameless individuals.
Pontecorvo (b. 1919) has made only five feature films to date: The Wide Blue Road (1957), Kapo, The Battle of Algiers, Burn! (1969) and Operation Ogre (1980). Born into a Jewish family in Pisa, he studied chemistry there before moving to Paris and working as a journalist because of growing anti-Semitism in Italy. During World War II, he joined the Italian Communist Party and fought as a partisan in the Resistance. A viewing of Roberto Rossellini's neo-realist classic Paisa (1946) inspired him to become a filmmaker; he worked as an assistant to directors such as Yves Allegret, Giancarlo Menotti and Mario Monicelli, before making a series of documentary shorts and finally directing his first feature-length film with The Wide Blue Road. His masterpiece, however, undeniably remains The Battle of Algiers, a milestone in political filmmaking and still the most successful attempt to film dramatized scenes using documentary techniques.
By the time Susan Strasberg (1938-1999) made Kapo in 1959, she had already established a strong reputation with the lead role in the original Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank and her performances in The Cobweb (1955) and Picnic (1955). The daughter of Lee and Paula Strasberg of Actors Studio fame, she also befriended Marilyn Monroe and later wrote about their friendship in the 1992 book Marilyn and Me. Strasberg's large, expressive eyes were undoubtedly one of the features that attracted Pontecorvo to her in the first place. In her 1980 autobiography Bittersweet, Strasberg recalls that upon first meeting her in Rome, Pontecorvo declared "You no 'ave blue eyes." (Her brown eyes had been painted blue on the cover of Look magazine.) He continued, "It's okay. You 'ave Jewish eyes." When Miss Strasberg objected, Pontecorvo replied: "Yes. Jewish eyes sad, suffer. My eyes only suffer little but I'm only half Jewish. Your eyes suffer all." The meticulously detailed concentration camp set was constructed outside of Belgrade in Yugoslavia. Strasberg recalls: "When the natives saw the camp going up, they almost rioted. It was only fifteen years since the war. Large signs had to be posted: MOVIE SET. FILMING. MOVIE SET."
Kapo's reputation has been decidedly mixed since its initial release. Strasberg recalls that the film received a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival and she was called "La Strasberg." She was also awarded Best Actress at the 1961 Mar del Plata film festival. Although the film received an Oscar® nomination for Best Foreign Film--losing out to Bergman's The Virgin Spring (1960)--it was not released in the U.S. until 1964, four years after its original release in Italy. Besides the standard 116-minute version, Kapo was widely shown stateside in an edited 92-minute version. The reviewer for Variety rightly singled out Emmanuelle Riva for her remarkable performance as Terese, the interpreter and Nicole's closest friend in the camp. In contrast, he characterizes Strasberg's performance as "effective in her early, Anne Frank-ish scenes," but "less so as a harsh-voiced female guard." At the same time, the reviewer complained that the film was too long at nearly two hours and that the music was overly emphatic, a criticism that Annette Insdorf has echoed in her study of Holocaust films entitled Indelible Shadows. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times characterized the film as a "gruesome melodrama," expressing discomfort with both the "indignities and tortures of the most graphic and sickening sort" associated with the film's concentration camp setting and the melodramatic romance between Strasberg and Laurent Terzieff. He did, however, again praise Emmanuelle Riva as "elastic and electrifying." While today even Pontecorvo openly admits the weakness of the romantic subplot, this little-seen film deserves to be better recognized for its strength as a philosophical examination of the impossible choice between survival and dehumanization on the one hand, and altruism and self-sacrifice on the other.
Producer: Franco Cristaldi, Moris Ergas
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Screenplay: Gillo Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas
Cinematography: Goffredo Bellisario and Alexander Sekulovic
Composer: Carlo Rustichelli
Editor: Roberto Cinquini
Art Director: Piero Gherardi
Cast: Susan Strasberg (Edith/Nicole), Laurent Terzieff (Sascha), Emmanuelle Riva (Terese), Didi Perego (Sofia), Gianni Garko (German soldier).
by James Steffen