International Film Review: Kapo (dir by Gillo Pontecorvo)

What turns someone into a collaborator?

That’s the question that is at the heart of the 1960 Italian-French film, Kapo.

The film opens in Nazi-occupied France, with 14 year-old Edith (played by 22 year-old Susan Strasberg) practicing the piano at her teacher’s house.  Edith wears the yellow star on her dress and, as she finishes her lesson, her teacher instructs her to be careful returning home.  Edith cheerfully states that she and her family have nothing to worry about.  Edith walks home and, as the opening credits roll, we follow her as she walks through what appears to be a very robust and busy city.  Other than the yellow star on Edith’s dress, there are no outward signs of the occupation in the city.  However, when Edith finally reaches her neighborhood, she sees that her family and her neighbors are being rounded up the Germans.

Edith and her parents are sent to a concentration camp but get separated as soon as they arrive.  Wandering around the camp, Edith meets another prisoner named Sofia (Didi Perago).  Sofia takes Edith to the camp doctor.  He arranges for Edith to switch identities with a non-Jewish prisoner who has just died.  Edith’s new name is Nicole and her yellow star is removed and replaced by a black triangle, which designates Edith/Nicole as being “asocial.”

Edith is transferred to another concentration camp, this one in Poland.  She comes to think of herself as being Nicole.  When another prisoner, Terese (Emmanuelle Riva), asks her is she’s Jewish, Nicole replies that she’s not.  Nicole quickly grows hardened to life in the camp and exchanges sex for food.  She becomes the lover of a guard named Karl (played by future spaghetti western mainstay Gianni Garko) and is made a Kapo, a prisoner who also works as a guard.  However, when Nicole then falls in love with a Russian prisoner-of-war and he asks her to help him and his comrades escape, she is forced to finally decide whether she is Nicole or whether she’s Edith.

To return to the question that started this review: What makes someone a collaborator?  That’s the question that Kapo attempts to answer and it’s a question that was undoubtedly close to  Director Gillo Pontecorvo’s heart.  Pontecorvo was one of the most political of the post-World War II Italian filmmakers.  He was born in 1919 and, as a child, saw firsthand the rise of Mussolini.  As a Jew, he also experienced anti-Semitism firsthand and, in 1938, he left Italy for France.  In France, he befriended Sartre and many other key members of the International Left.  He was reportedly emotionally and politically moved by his friends who left France to fight on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War.  During World War II, he joined the Italian communist party and fought in the resistance.  It’s perhaps not a surprise that, in Kapo, Nicole’s chance at redemption comes about as a result of falling in love with a communist soldier.

Unfortunately, Kapo struggles to answer the question of why one would collaborate with the enemy.  The main problem is that Susan Strasberg is miscast of Edith/Nicole, never convincing us that she’s a naïve teenager or a hardened collaborator.  She’s also not helped by a script that continually reduces everything down to who Edith/Nicole happens to be in love with at any given point of time.  It also doesn’t help that Strasberg find herself acting opposite Emmuelle Riva, Gianni Garko, and other actors who all authentic in a way that she’s not.

Kapo is more valuable as an examination of the horrors of the camps than as a character study.  The film’s most powerful moment comes early on, when Edith/Nicole learns that, in the eyes of the Nazis, it’s preferable that someone be a criminal to being a Jew.  In that moment, the film captures both the brutal horror and the arbitrary absurdity of prejudice.  The scene is followed by another harrowing moment, in which Edith can only helplessly watch as her parents are marched to gas chambers.  In those brief moments, Kapo becomes an important film.  You may not remember much about Edith/Nicole but you will remember those scenes.

I should also note that, regardless of its flaws, the film does end on a powerful note, one that will leave many viewers asking how much they would be willing to sacrifice to do the right thing.  Would you sacrifice your life to save hundreds of others?  It’s a question that Edith/Nicole has to answer, though the film leaves it ambiguous as to whether her final decision was made by her or if it was made for her.  Still, the film’s final images do stay with you.

In America, Kapo received a nomination for what was then known as the Best Foreign Film Oscar.  In Europe, though, many critics criticized Pontecorvo for making a film that they felt sentimentalized the Holocaust.  Stung by their criticism, Pontecorvo’s next film, which would be considered by many critics to be his masterpiece, would be the documentary-style The Battle of Algiers, one of the most resolutely anti-sentimental political films ever made.

The LAFCA Rejects Zero Dark Thirty And Embraces Amour

Oscar season continued today as the Los Angeles Film Critics Association named their picks for the best in 2012.  The winners are listed below:

Runner-up: “The Master”

Paul Thomas Anderson (“The Master”)
Runner-up: Kathryn Bigelow (“Zero Dark Thirty”)

Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”)
Runner-up: Denis Lavant (“Holy Motors”)

Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”)
Emmanuelle Riva (“Amour”)

Dwight Henry (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”)
Runner-up: Christoph Waltz (“Django Unchained”)

Amy Adams (“The Master”)
Runner-up: Anne Hathaway (“The Dark Knight Rises”; “Les Miserables”)

Chris Terrio (“Argo”)
Runner-up: David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”)

Dylan Tichenor and William Goldenberg (“Zero Dark Thirty”)
William Goldenberg (“Argo”)

Roger Deakins (“Skyfall”)
Runner-up: Mihai Malaimare Jr. (“The Master”)

“The Master”
Runner-up: “Moonrise Kingdom”

Dan Romer & Benh Zeitlin (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”)
Runner-up: Johnny Greenwood (“The Master”)

“Holy Motors”
Runner-up: “Footnote”

Runner-up: “It’s Such a Beautiful Day”

“The Gatekeepers”
Runner-up: “Searching for Sugar Man

Over on and, all the usual suspects seem to be shocked that Zero Dark Thirty didn’t win best picture and happy that Beasts of the Southern Wild got some love.  A lot of the people leaving comments are also upset that The Master got as many votes as it did.  Over at Goldderby, one visitor found the time to comment, “Those votes for The Master should have been tossed in the trash, along with the film itself!” before going back to his usual routine of waiting to see if any celebs had responded to his twitter follow request.

As far as Amour winning best picture is concerned, I’m happy to see another film win a major critics’ award because seriously, Oscar season can get pretty boring when only one film is winning everything in sight.

As for Beasts of the Southern Wild, this is one of those times when I find myself respectfully disagreeing with just about every other reviewer out there (including our very own Leonth3Duke, whose excellent review can be read here).  The film had its moments (and I do think that Dwight Henry was the best thing in the film) but, for the most part, it left me cold.  Then again, I’ve never had much patience for the myth of the noble savage.

As for The Master, it’s one of the best of the year.  Deal with it.

By the way, here are the Satellite Award Nominations…


In even more Oscar season news, the International Press Association announced their nominations for the Satellite Awards yesterday.  Les Miserables led with 10 nominations.

If you’re like most people who don’t obsess over film awards then chances are that you’ve never heard of the International Press Association.  And that’s okay.  The main thing to know is that it’s Oscar season and that means that everyone’s giving out an award.  The Satellites are a lot like the Golden Globes, just with less credibility.  As far as serving as a precursor is concerned, a Satellite win can help a film maintain momentum but a loss doesn’t really hurt.

That said, for the past few years, I’ve always ended up agreeing more with the Satellite Nominations than with either the Oscars or the Golden Globes.  For instance, back in 2010, the Satellites nominated Noomi Rapace for her performance in the original (and the best) version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

“Beasts Of The Southern Wild”
“Life Of Pi”
“Les Misérables”
“Moonrise Kingdom”
“The Sessions”
“Silver Linings Playbook”
“Zero Dark Thirty”

Ben Affleck, “Argo”
Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln”
Kim Ki-duk, “Pieta“
Ben Lewin, “The Sessions”
David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook”
Kathryn Bigelow, “Zero Dark Thirty”

Laura Birn, “Purge”
Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty”
Emilie Dequenne, “Our Children”
Keira Knightley, “Anna Karenina”
Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook”
Laura Linney, “Hyde Park On Hudson”
Emmanuelle Riva, “Amour”

Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln”
John Hawkes, “The Sessions”
Hugh Jackman, “Les Misérables”
Joaquin Phoenix, “The Master”
Omar Sy, “The Intouchables”
Denzel Washington, “Flight”

Amy Adams, “The Master”
Samantha Barks, “Les Miserables“
Judi Dench, “Skyfall”
Helene Florent, “Café De Flore”
Anne Hathaway, “Les Misérables”
Helen Hunt, “The Sessions”

Javier Bardem, “Skyfall”
Robert De Niro, “Silver Linings Playbook”
John Goodman, “Flight”
Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Master”
Tommy Lee Jones, “Lincoln”
Eddie Redmayne, “Les Misérables”

John Gatins, “Flight”
Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache, “The Intouchables”
Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Master”
Roman Coppola and Wes Anderson, “Moonrise Kingdom”
Kim Ki-duk, “Pieta”
Mark Boal, “Zero Dark Thirty”

Tom Stoppard, “Anna Karenina”
Chris Terrio, “Argo”
David Magee, “Life Of Pi”
Tony Kushner, “Lincoln”
Ben Lewin, “The Sessions”
David O. Russell, “Silver Linings Playbook”

“Amour” (Austria)
“Beyond The Hills” (Romania)
“Caesar Must Die” (Italy)
“The Intouchables” (France)
“Kon-Tiki” (Norway)
“Our Children” (Belgium)
“Pieta” (South Korea)
“A Royal Affair” (Denmark)
“War Witch” (Canada)

“Ice Age 4: Continental Drift”
“Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”
“Rise Of The Guardians”
“Wreck-It Ralph”

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”
“The Central Park Five”
“Chasing Ice”
“The Gatekeepers”
“Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present”
“The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”
“Searching For Sugar Man”
“West Of Memphis”

Seamus McGarvey, “Anna Karenina”
Ben Richardson, “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”
Claudio Miranda, “Life Of Pi”
Janusz Kaminski, “Lincoln”
Mihai Malaimare, Jr., “The Master”
Roger Deakins, “Skyfall”

Sarah Greenwood, Niall Moroney, Thomas Brown, Nick Gottschalk and Tom Still, “Anna Karenina”
Nathan Crowley, Kevin Kavanaugh, James Hambidge and Naaman Marshall, “The Dark Knight Rises”
Rick Carter, Curt Beech, David Crank and Leslie McDonald, “Lincoln”
David Crank and Jack Fisk, “The Master”
Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson, “Les Misérables”
Niels Sejer, “A Royal Affair”

Jacqueline Durran, “Anna Karenina”
Kym Barrett and Pierre-Yves Gayraud, “Cloud Atlas”
Christian Gasc and Valerie Ranchoux, “Farewell, My Queen”
Paco Delgado, “Les Misérables”
Manon Rasmussen, “A Royal Affair”
Colleen Atwood, “Snow White And The Huntsman”

Alexander Berner, “Cloud Atlas”
Jeremiah O’Driscoll, “Flight”
Chris Dickens, “Les Misérables”
Lisa Bromwell, “The Sessions”
Jay Cassidy, “Silver Linings Playbook”
Dylan Tichenor, “Zero Dark Thirty”

Dario Marianelli, “Anna Karenina”
Alexandre Desplat, “Argo”
Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin, “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”
John Williams, “Lincoln”
Jonny Greenwood, “The Master”
Thomas Newman, “Skyfall”

“Learn Me Right,” “Brave”
“Fire In The Blood/Snake Song” “Lawless”
“Love Always Comes As A Surprise,” “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”
“Suddenly,” “Les Misérables”
“Still Alive,” “Paul Williams: Still Alive”
“Skyfall,” “Skyfall”

“Les Misérables”
“Snow White And The Huntsman”
“Life Of Pi”

“Cloud Atlas”
“The Dark Knight Rises”
“Life Of Pi”