While Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993) probably remains cinema’s most shallow, bug-eyed melodrama about the Holocaust, Kapò is even more drearily sentimental in providing its inside-out view of a Nazi work camp from which inmates are periodically selected for extermination. Gillo Pontecorvo, working—sometimes creatively—from an original script by Franco Solinas and himself, has made a black-and-white film that delivers a few good punches to the gut but which misses the authenticity of the Polish film The Last Stop (1947), which director Wanda Jakubowska based on her and co-scenarist Gerda Schneider’s internment at Auschwitz. Pity; in his youth a hero of the anti-Fascist resistance, Pontecorvo, who left us in 2006, was Italy’s only major filmmaker among his contemporaries who was Jewish. (If I am overlooking others, I apologize.) The protagonist of Kapò likewise is Jewish, although this teenager hides her identity for the sake of survival, rising in the ranks of her Polish camp for political prisoners to the position of kapò, a guard who wields the authority that the Nazis have delegated to her. As Nicole, Edith grows colder and colder, expending her humanity only on an adorable cat that her sister inmates eventually drown. But a spark of her old self reignites when, in the most improbable event of all, she falls in love with Soviet prisoner Sascha, whose comrades convince to sacrifice Nicole in the escape plot they hatch. The film is relentless; it is also very silly. Only a half-dozen years in the future, Pontecorvo’s documentary-style The Battle of Algiers seems a million miles away.
Susan Strasberg (best actress, Mar del Plata), Broadway’s Anne Frank a few years earlier, strains to give a good performance but is all over the map emotionally, partly the result of the dubious script. Didi Perego (best supporting actress, Italy’s critics), as outspoken Sofia, patterns her performance on Anna Magnani’s far more brilliant one in Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). The best acting comes from Emmanuèlle Riva as Terese, who fights mightily to retain her humanity and commits suicide on an electrified fence when she momentarily fails. Riva, of course, is one of cinema’s greatest actresses; still, I have to state the obvious: she is helped here by having claimed the only major role that makes sense.
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