Indefatigably political Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, best known for 1966’s truly revolutionary The Battle of Algiers, once stated that “the ideal director should be three-quarters Rossellini and one-quarter Eisenstein.” Certainly, one can see traces of the work of both of those legends in Pontecorvo’s career-long commitment to unadorned reality and daring political gestures, though as his ratio amusingly suggests, it’s Rossellini, specifically in his groundbreaking neorealist period, who influenced him most. In fact, as Pontecorvo told it, he was so altered by Paisan (1947), Rossellini’s portrait of people eking out lives in Italy during the final days of World War II, that he immediately quit his job as a journalist, bought a camera, and began making documentaries.
Pontecorvo went on to produce a series of acclaimed nonfiction films in the 1950s, including Timiriazev Mission (1953), about the floods in the Po Valley, and Bread and Sulphur (1956), a portrait of Sicilian miners. Between these projects, he worked as an assistant director on features by Yves Allegret and Mario Monicelli. He brought his empathy and knack for capturing reality to his first fiction feature, The Wide Blue Road (1957), which starred Yves Montand as a struggling fisherman and was Pontecorvo’s first project with screenwriter and longtime collaborator and friend Franco Solinas. Their next production, Kapò (1959), would be a searing inquiry into human nature in the most unimaginable of circumstances: the Holocaust.
Kapò is an unblinking depiction of life and death inside a Nazi concentration camp—one of the very first films that dared to take viewers on a journey through such horrors, which were still fresh in people’s minds. This difficult subject matter had personal resonance for the Jewish Pontecorvo. In 1938, soon after he earned a degree in chemistry in his hometown of Pisa, the rising tides of anti-Semitism in Italy had compelled him, at age nineteen, to move to
Paris. There he worked as a correspondent for Italian newspapers until 1941, when he returned to Italy, joined the Communist Party, and fought in the resistance.
Kapò’s protagonist is Edith (Susan Strasberg—daughter of the Actors Studio’s Lee and Paula Strasberg—cast the same year she famously lost the lead role in George Stevens’s The Diary of Anne Frank, which she had incarnated on Broadway), a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl who in the film’s first three minutes is ripped from the streets of occupied Paris and carted away with her family to a German concentration camp, where she is separated from her parents, whom she never sees again. Pontecorvo and Solinas then boldly tell a tale not of a pure victim but of a conflicted young woman who betrays her own people to survive, taking the identity of a dead, non-Jewish thief and, after being moved to a Polish camp, selling her body to German officers in exchange for food and, ultimately, the title of kapò, or warden.
With her penetrating, dark eyes, Strasberg is mesmerizing, as is Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima mon amour) as fellow inmate Terese. Yet the starkly black-and-white Kapò is perhaps most remarkable for Pontecorvo’s technique. Much of the film was photographed in extreme high contrast, giving it a blown-out look. The resulting aesthetic is stunningly natural. As Films and Filming’s Gordon Gow wrote in 1962, “At times, it captures the illusion of authenticity so well that if not for recognizable actors in a scene, we might be looking at a newsreel.”