Sunday, June 9, 2013


Tonight's TCM Import is Kapò, airing overnight at 2:00 AM. It's disturbing, but well worth a watch.

Susan Strasberg stars as Édith, a young Jewish girl in Paris circa 1940. This, of course, is a problem. The Nazis defeated France in June of 1940 and occupied the country. The Nazis have that policy of rounding up all the Jews and sending them to concentration camps for their eventual annihilation, so being a Jew is not safe at all. Eventually, Édith and her parents are rounded up with a whole bunch of other Jews and sent east to a concentration camp. But this is only the beginning of Édith's problems. She sees her parents sent off to the gas chamber, but amazingly, she's spared: one of the camp's doctors decides to give her the clothes and identity papers of "Nicole", who was a prisoner at the camp and died in the hosptial. So, the Nazis will just figure that Édith died in hospital. It's a dead Jew; what difference does it make how she died? Yes, that sounds tasteless, but I don't think the Nazis cared unless the Jews got sick with something contagious that could have spread to the Nazi guards.

I also assume that seeing your parents exterminated and you saved through sheer dumb luck must be a nightmare, one far worse than Gary Merrill had facing the question of why he survived and his new friends didn't in Phone Call From a Stranger. And Édith, now Nicole, still has a lot of problems: after all, she's still a prisoner. But as a non-Jewish prisoner, the Nazis figure she might be useful doing forced labor for the Nazis. So she gets shipped off to one of the many labor camps set up for that purpose. She's still alive, but it's not as if the conditions are much better. She meets Thérèse (Emmanuelle Riva; yes, the same one who was nominated for an Oscar last year) and becomes friends, but finds she still can't deal with the harsh conditions. So she makes a difficult choice: she becomes a "kapò", a prisoner who helps keep the other prisoners in line, in exchange for better treatment from the camp guards. She even becomes a bit friendly with one of the German guards, who's only there because he was injured in the war and still has to do service. The other prisoners, unsurprisingly, don't like Nicole.

Things get even more complicated: the Nazis capture a bunch of Soviets, and build a POW camp next to the labor camp. Fraternization between the two groups is frowned upon, but Édith meets Sascha (Laurent Terzieff) and strikes up a friendship with him. The Soviet soldiers, for their part, are more likely to try to make an escape than the women. This is going to become an issue as the Germans start losing the war, and advancing Soviet soldiers begin to get closer to the two camps, making liberation a distinct possibility. Unless, that is, the Nazis annihilate everybody in both camps first.

I don't think I can imagine any movie capturing the full horrors of being in a concentration camp; the closest would be documentary interviews with people who survived the camps. (I've only seen bits and pieces of Shoah, so I can't comment fully on it.) Still, Kapò is quite thought-provoking, asking the decidedly uncomfortable question: what would you do to survive? Fred Zinnemann hinted at this question in Act of Violence, but the issue is much more front and center here. Strasberg does an excellent job as the young woman forced to make uncomfortable choices, while the rest of the cast is adequate, even if only in service of Strasberg. The black-and-white cinematography is also suitably bleak.

Kapò is also available on DVD.

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