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Film / Kapò

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Kapo is a 1960 film from Italy, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.

It is a drama of the Holocaust. Edith (Susan Strasberg) is a 14-year-old Jewish girl in Paris during the Nazi occupation, one from a family prosperous enough to get her private piano lessons even after she has to wear a Jewish star on her coat. Edith naively thinks that she and her family are safe, but goes home one day to find her parents getting hauled into a Nazi truck. She makes the reckless decision to go with them, and shortly finds herself in Auschwitz.

Her parents are gassed soon after arrival, but with some luck and the intervention of a kindly prison doctor, Edith escapes the death chambers. She assumes the non-Jewish identity of a common criminal named Nicole, and gets sent to a different slave labor camp. Conditions are hardly better, though. Starvation and desperation lead Edith/Nicole to shed her humanity. First she offers herself in sexual service to the SS guards. Later, she becomes a "kapo", i.e. a camp trusty guarding prisoners, and in that role becomes just as brutal as her Nazi masters.


  • Bittersweet Ending: Nicole dies in the breakout, but dies redeemed, and reclaims her Jewish identity by reciting the "Shema Yisrael" prayer. Many of the prisoners are shot and killed in the mass breakout, but some do manage to escape to the forest. Sasha does not make a break for it, staying right in the yard. He actually emerges unscathed from the shooting and chaos, but he is left alone in despair.
  • Breaking Speech: Teresa, a political prisoner, takes Nicole under her wing. At one point she tells Nicole to wash when given the chance, as it's important for the prisoners to maintain their humanity. Later, when she's put on half rations for three months, which is nothing less than a sentence to slowly starve to death, Teresa breaks down and steals another prisoner's bread. Nicole gives her a spiteful little speech about how her ideals were nonsense. Teresa promptly kills herself by running into the electrified fence.
  • Chummy Commies: Unusually so in a Cold War time film, the Russians are portrayed as heroic and the protagonist's Love Interest is a young Russian soldier. Perhaps not surprisingly, as the director was a Communist (and brother to the famous scientist Bruno Pontecorvo, who defected to the Soviet Union).
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Although it isn't sexy one little bit. Nicole is taken out of barracks as part of the "selection" that determines which prisoners will be murdered and which will be allowed to live a little longer. She has sores on her hands that surely will condemn her to death. When the Nazi making the selections demands to see her hands, she bares her breasts instead, and is allowed to live.
  • Driven to Suicide: A despairing Teresa, doomed to slowly starve to death after she's put on half-rations, kills herself by throwing herself into the electrified fence.
  • Dying as Yourself: Nicole dies helping the other escaping. As she lays dying she sings a Jewish prayer, claiming her identity.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Sofia, one of Nicole's friends in the camp, is being taken away with workers selected for death. Rather than go meekly like the others, she starts screaming at the guards ("Filthy murderers!") until they have to take her out of line and shoot her on the spot.
  • Final Solution: Underway in France. Edith narrowly escapes being gassed when she manages to sneak out of the barracks and find her way to a friendly doctor, who helps her to switch identities with a Gentile petty criminal.
  • Foreshadowing: As the Auschwitz doctor is hurriedly giving Nicole a homemade tattoo and hacking her hair off, he tells her to watch out for the kapos, who can be quite brutal. Nicole becomes a vicious kapo.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Nicole knows full well that she will die in the escape, because she has to cut the power to the fence, and that will sound an alarm, and the power room is right next to the main guard tower. She does it anyway.
  • High-Heel–Face Turn: Nicole, who has thrown her lot in with the Germans, turns "good" again at the end and sacrifices herself so that the other prisoners have a chance at escape. All because of her love for Sasha.
  • Love Redeems: Nicole has become a nasty and vicious kapo, but when she falls in love with Sasha the handsome Russian POW, she has a change of heart, and agrees to help the mass prison breakout.
  • The Needs of the Many: The plan for the prison breakout has already been made and is about to go forward when the Russians plotting their escape find out that cutting the power to the electrified fence will set off an alarm siren. That means that whoever cuts the power is doomed to be caught by the guards and immediately shot to death—and that's Nicole's job. A horrified Sasha has a hurried debate with another Russian who insists that Nicole can't be told.
    Sasha: Why should she do it?
    Other Russian: Her life for many others.
    Sasha: Is it all right to barter with lives like that?
  • Pietà Plagiarism: Karl shoots the door to the switch room full of holes, only to be shocked when he opens the door and a dying Nicole falls out. He cradles her while she recites a Jewish prayer before she dies.
  • Protagonist Journey to Villain: Edith/Nicole goes from a frightened child in Auschwitz to a brutal kapo. Even more brutal than she needs to be: at one point she beats and turns in a starving inmate trying to slip a letter home to a civilian.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Karl, the one SS guard who isn't brutal or exploitative towards the inmates. He isn't a good guy—he is SS, after all—but he's content to play cards with Nicole in the barracks room.
  • Reality Has No Subtitles: It's an Italian film, so the dialogue is in Italian, but the German dialogue of the Nazis gets no subtitles.
  • Sex Slave: Before she becomes a kapo Nicole is a sex slave for the SS guards for a while.
  • Time Skip: We see a haggard Nicole leave the SS office after being raped by a guard, and without even getting anything to eat. The scene then cuts to a pretty twisted compulsory Christmas celebration out in the yard, then to Nicole looking much healthier and with longer hair, still in the SS office. Dialogue reveals that this is the second Christmas to have passed since Nicole was raped, and that she's been servicing SS men ever since.
  • Translation Convention: It's slightly disorienting to see a film set in France in the Italian language, with people saying "Pronto" when they pick up the phone, but Italians can use the Translation Convention just like anyone else.
  • Traumatic Haircut: The Auschwitz doctor is cutting Edith's hair to save her life—she was marked for gassing but escaped, and he has to cut her hair to make her look like a long-term camp prisoner. She still weeps as he does it.