Kapo (Gillo Pontecorvo / Italy-France-Yugoslavia, 1960):

The central image is the Jewish waif in the oversized SS coat, her trajectory is Gillo Pontecorvo's stark investigation. It opens like Polanski's The Pianist with an interrupted music lesson, the Parisian teenager (Susan Strasberg) joins her parents in the back of a Nazi truck only to have to fend for herself amid the nacht und nebel. Criminal black triangles have "slightly better odds" than yellow stars—clothes off a fresh cadaver permit the identity-switch in an Auschwitz doctor's office, the heroine is shorn and renamed and tattooed. "Live and think of nothing else." In the cattle car to the Polish camp, fellow prisoners hopeful (Emmanuelle Riva) and embittered (Didi Perego) stand by her like shoulder angels and devils. The warm stove indoors is a mirage in an arduous rainy day, "dignity" is a luxury in the face of fear and hunger. For Pontecorvo the issue is not one of betrayal but of "adjustment," something more insidious as the girl sleeps with the enemy and hardens into a lackey. (Even the one-handed German officer has to ask: "Nothing else matters?") The shock that numbs and the shock that revives, the Soviet POW (Laurent Terzieff) triggers both breakout plan and spiritual regeneration. Strasberg because it's The Diary of Anne Frank, barbed wire and a blinding searchlight for her deflowering behind closed doors and electrocuted martyrdom for Riva. (One infamous tracking shot would raise the ire of Rivette and Serge Daney, and that's long before the Spielberg Tour.) La Marseillaise defiantly whistled gives a foretaste of The Great Escape, Fausto the black Kraut cat has its own skin to worry about. "One way to feel more human? Refuse to become like beasts." The closing view is a Guernica, Wertmüller scrapes romance and redemption off of the descent (Pasqualino Settebellezze). With Gianni Garko, Annabella Besi, Graziella Galvani, and Paola Pitagora. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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