Kapò

dir. Gillo Pontecorvo

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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Emmanuelle Riva is mesmerizing as an inmate of a Nazi labour camp in this groundbreaking Holocaust drama by Gillo Pontecorvo (The Battle of Algiers).
An early film by the director of The Battle of Algiers, the immensely powerful Kapò continues to generate controversy more than half a century after it was released: French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy recently wrote an essay on Hollywood's Nazi revisionism that centred on Pontecorvo's film and its condemnation, most virulently by Jacques Rivette in a 1961 review called "On Abjection" in Cahiers du cinéma, which focused on a single shot of Emmanuelle Riva's hand (which cannot be fully described here, as it constitutes a "spoiler") and declared of Pontecorvo that "This man deserves nothing but the most profound contempt." (Having suffered anti-Semitism in Fascist Italy before leaving for Paris in 1938, Pontecorvo was devastated by Rivette's denunciation.) Susan Strasberg plays Edith, a Jewish teenager sent to a concentration camp and the sole member of her family to escape the gas chamber. Taking a new identity from a dead thief, she re-emerges as the non-Jewish Nicole and rises to become a kapò (warden) in a Nazi labour camp in Poland, seemingly indifferent to the suffering she oversees until a Russian prisoner (Laurent Terzieff) convinces her that she must assist in a mass escape. Riva is mesmerizing as Edith/Nicole's fellow inmate Thérèse. One of the first and still most authentic films about the Holocaust, Kapò "captures the illusion of authenticity so well that if not for recognizable actors in a scene, we might be looking at a newsreel" (Films and Filming).