Kapò (1960) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Director:     Gillo Pontecorvo.

Starring:     Susan Strasberg (Edith, alias Nicole Niepas), Laurent Terzieff (Sascha), Emmanuelle Riva (Terese), Didi Perego (Sofia), Gianni Garko (Karl, German Soldier).

Edith, a French Jewish girl, is transferred from a Nazi concentration camp to a Polish labor camp where she becomes a kapo in the camp

 

 

Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.

Edith performs on the piano for her piano teacher. When she finishes her teacher tells her that the performance was better than before. Edith asks when she may come back. The teacher expresses surprise because she thought that Edith and her family were leaving town. Edith replies: "Papa says it isn't necessary. He says nothing can happen in Paris." She says this while she puts on her light coat with a yellow star of David patch on the coat. The teacher says she can come again tomorrow.

Edith goes straight home while eating an apple along the way. When she nears home she sees many people intently watching a German round-up of Jewish people from one of the apartment buildings. Edith stops and watches.

Edith starts forward but a woman warns her not to go to the truck and the Germans. But Edith is concerned about her mother so she starts shouting for her as she runs to the back of the truck.

Mother tells Edith to run for it, but Edith is more concerned about her mother and father than herself. So the Germans grab Edith and throw her onto the truck. The truck pulls out.

The next part of the journey is by train. The train arrives at a concentration camp. The box cars are opened and the people start pouring out onto the ground. They are driven forward. As the poor people are driven past a check point, the Germans separate the men from the women. Children are also separated from their parents. Babies are ripped out of the arms of their mothers.

The adults are lined up along a wall of a barracks with their faces toward the wall and their hands placed on the wall. More children are torn away from their parents. Edith is grabbed as her parents try in vain to hold onto her.

Edith finds herself in a large room with babies and children of different ages. She picks up a very young child to comfort the little one. A boy named Pierre who knows Edith tells her that he heard one of the guards saying that the Germans are going to kill everyone at dawn. And that includes all the old people and the children.

Edith says her parents don't know this. They must leave this place immediately. The side door is open. Pierre says it's no use. So Edith goes by herself.

Edith has to snake around the barracks trying to avoid the spotlights. She runs across a group of dead inmates and is horrified by the sight. By barracks 273 she looks inside and see the inmates stacked up on many leveled bunks.

A Kapo grabs Edith and asks her what is she doing here? Edith begs to be let inside. The Kapo hears the young girl say: "They want to kill me!" The Kapo says: "You're a Jew." Yes. "Tough luck." She takes Edith's necklace.

The Kapo takes pity on Edith and takes her to the doctor. The doctor tells Sofia to come in quickly. Sofia says the girl is afraid but she is not on the list yet. The doctor says Sofia can go now, but Sofia wants at least some kind of reward. The doctor says today he has nothing to give her. Sofia says she wants the reward now and not later because her whole block is being transferred to a labor camp tomorrow. No dice. So Sofia starts to leave. She tells the doctor to slip the kid into their convoy so she can go to the labor camp.

The doctor starts walking with Edith. He asks and she tells him that she is only 14 and has been separated from her mother and father in the camp. The doctor goes into a room and looks for inmates that have died. He finds one and strips the corpse of its camp clothes. He says that Edith is lucky because one of the woman died last night. If the person hadn't died, the doctor says he could not have helped Edith.

He takes Edith into another room and tells her to take all her clothes off. He then gives her the uniform. Edith doesn't want to wear the uniform of a dead person, but the doctor tells her that she has to put it on or she will not live.

The black triangle on the uniform means the wearer is a criminal. A red triangle like the doctor has means he's a political prisoner. The Jews wear the yellow star. Of all the categories, the criminals are treated the best. From this group are chosen the "trustees" or Kapos. The doctor warns Edith: "Beware of them." They are mean and can do anything they like to the prisoners.

The doctor explains that she is taking the place of a French thief known as Nicole Niepas and her number is 10099. He tells her all this while he's cutting off most of her hair.

Nicole looks out the window and sees groups of different naked people being pushed forward by the guards. Nicole sees her parents in one of the groups and cries out to them. Luckily, no one can hear her.

Nicole starts to cry. When the doctor comes in she cries on his shoulder. He tells her that the only thing she should be thinking about is her own survival. Survival is all that really counts. And Nicole must want to live, to survive.

The doc says Nicole will be in the same block with Sofia. And she must absolutely remember that now she is Nicole. And she is not Jewish any more! He lets her out the door.

Nicole and the criminals are on the train headed for the labor camp. Sofia says the only thing Nicole has to deal with is the cold, hunger and fear. Nicole asks for confirmation from another woman but this woman insists that one must hold on to one's own dignity. Sofia thinks the woman is nutty.

The train arrives at the labor camp. Like before there are lots of German guards. From the language they hear spoken outside, they conclude that now they are in Poland. The doors open and the women get off the train. The women are marched away.

As the new women arrive the inmates already in prison crowd around the wires to get a look at the newcomers.

Food for the women is brought out by other women prisoners in huge containers. The women are really hungry and they struggle to get up near the front. One of the women drops her container, so Nicole gives her some of her soup. The woman with a more positive outlook named Terese sees this. She comes over to Nicole, saying: "I always thought of you as a good girl, in spite of your black triangle." Terese says Nicole is a Jew, but Nicole says she is not a Jew.

One of the women tells Terese that even the rebel political prisoners settle down after awhile. So you can't really rely on them. One of the women was a good partisan, but now she is a Kapo.

Nicole starts crying and a woman in the next bunk tells her to stop crying. Nicole cries that she does not want to die.

The women laborers work hard putting in railroad tracks. Nicole sees two Kapos inside a warm shelter out of the rain. When the two women leave the shelter, Nicole sneaks over and goes inside. A Kapo returns and she beats Nicole with her baton. As punishment Nicole will get fifteen days in solitary.

Terese heats her potato on the stove. The one Russian woman in the group is said to be a bit nutty. The women ask her if the Russians are coming soon and she always says yes, they're coming.

Terese now works as an interpreter. Nicole comes in with a Kapo. The Kapo calls the interpreter over to her, while Nicole goes to warm her hands by the stove. Nicole sees the potato and grabs it.

The interpreter comes back and sees that her potato is gone. She sees Nicole eating the potato. She asks that Nicole give it back, but Nicole just shakes her head no. One of the women tells Terese to go and get the potato if it's hers. The interpreter won't do it and the woman says the one-time partisan is now a chicken.

The women line up to wash themselves. The water is very cold. Nicole doesn't want to wash herself. Terese tells her to go ahead and wash. It reminds one that they are not an animal. Now Nicole shows her terribly blistered hands to the interpreter.

Today the women are being examined. The weak ones will be taken away to another camp. The women speculate it will be a camp with a gas chamber. The women try to make themselves look younger and healthy. Sofia gives Nicole some helpful hints to pass the exam. Nicole shows Sofia her hands and Sofia tells her to just keep her hands hidden.

It's Nicole's turn to be examined. She tries to stand up straight and have a determined look on her face. The doctor asks her to see her feet and then her hands. Nicole carefully keeps her palms pointed downward as she extends her arms and hands out. She knows she must distract the doctor's attention. She pulls down her uniform to show him her breasts and the doctor forgets about her hands. (no nudity shown)

The women find out which direction did the doctors send one of the older women to. She was sent to the right. All the women that went left are relieved and all the women that went right are terribly distraught. Nicole is ecstatic saying that she fooled them, she fooled them.

Sofia is taken away with the older women. As the women march away, Sofia becomes more and more angry and she starts shouting. She calls the guards gangsters and scumbags. They tell her to shut up, but she keeps on shouting insults. A guard gets really frustrated with her, knocks her onto the ground and shoots her with his automatic weapon.

Terese and Nicole are two of the four women who have to remove Sofia's dead body. They take it over to a mass grave. They put lime on the body and then throw it into the pit.

A Kapo tells Terese to prepare Nicole to go to the SS and tell her it will be good for her. Terese says but Nicole is just a kid! The Kapo says: "Exactly." Terese tells Nicole and adds that naturally Nicole won't accept. But Nicole does accept it, saying: "Why not?"

A SS officer takes Nicole into a back room and has sex with her. Later she comes out. The officer tells another officer known as Karl that she was a virgin.

It's Christmas. The women prisoners sing Christmas carols while standing in formation around a large Christmas tree. Nicole is over at the recreation area of the SS. Karl is the only one there and he asks Nicole why she came today? Because some of his friends asked her to come. Karl tells her they are all in town drunk as skunks.

Nicole feels comfortable with Karl and they talk awhile. She asks him what if the Germans lose the war. Karl says: "Impossible."

To get some fire going again among the inmates, a group, including Terese, suggests that they start talking about escaping. Terese says it's impossible, but one of the other women says it's not impossible.

Nicole gets things from the SS officers and she takes things. She trades these goods to a Kapo for things she wants. She starts to become buddies with this Kapo. So, the Kapo asks her one day to become a Kapo.

Nicole is hardening up. When a woman sasses her, she strikes her twice across the face. She says in the future the woman is to mind her own business. The woman dare not retaliate for Nicole is friends with the Kapos and the SS officers.

Also different about Nicole is that she looks like a woman. She has put on weight, her figure has filled out and her hair has grown out and she wears it in a nice style. She looks healthy and fit.

And now Nicole is made a Kapo. She is a very hard Kapo too. She has to walk her section to a public execution for a woman the Germans call a saboteur. She tried to commit sabotage of the machines in the factory. Terese has to be the translator. The condemned woman is a friend of Terese and Terese starts crying. She doesn't translate the last sentences and the commander pushes her onto the muddy ground.  The punishment for Terese is fifteen days in solitary and three months on half rations.

The women are on a break at work. Karl speaks to Nicole about his transferring to the front. He doesn't like it here. Karl says it's too boring. He asks Nicole if she likes being here and she actually says: "Now I do. I eat well, sleep well, not much work and no more selection." He asks her if that's all she cares about? Nicole replies: "What else is there?"

Poor Terese is having a rough time with hunger pains from her being on half rations.

The women hear men singing in Russian. They are Russian POWs. The women all get up and walk over to the edge of the ridge to get a look at the men. The crazy Russian woman recognizes the Russian song and says they are Russians.

The men are repairing bunks for the barracks. They come into the barracks where all the women are lined up in a semi-circle to greet them. They are really happy to sre some men. The Russian woman goes up to hug her Russian "boys".

The group clown of the men is Sascha and he encourages the women to come and hug them like the Russian woman is doing. You don't have to ask the women twice. They surround the men. Sasha gives all the women around him a kiss.

Kapo Nicole comes into the barracks. She hears Sascha say that the Allies have landed at Normandy France and the Germans have lost at Stalingrad. And now the Red Army is back at the Dnieper River. [The river flows from Russia, through Belarus and the Ukraine, to the Black Sea for a total length of 2,285 kilometers (1,420 mi.)]

Speaking of defeating the Germans, one of Nicole's enemies, Georgette, says when that day arrives she will skin Nicole's black cat alive and drench him in muriatic acid.

Sascha likes the look of Nicole and he goes over to talk to her. She has hardened her heart and is none too kind to Sascha. She tells Sascha to get back to work. Everyone is called out of the barracks.

A woman manhandles Terese saying that the interpreter stole and ate almost a half slice of bread she was saving to eat later. Nicole tells the woman too bad for her and then pushes her towards the barrack's door.

Nicole asks Terese about it and she admits it. Nicole starts to pull her out of the barracks, but Terese tells her to leave her alone. Now Nicole starts destroying Terese's hopeful, positive attitude. She says washing every morning didn't do Terese any good at all. "You preached so well." She adds that Terese is just like all the others and everything she said was just a bunch of hot air.

Terese keeps shaking her head no. Then she gets an idea. She runs around to the back of the barracks, runs over to the electrified fence of barbed wire and grabs the wire with both hands. She is electrocuted.

The women and men work on the hill in a wide open field. Sascha brings a big rock down the field to build a stone wall. He sees Nicole go after a woman prisoner trying to get a local farmer to mail a letter for her. Nicole starts beating her again and again until Sascha rushes over and stops her. He says to her: "A rat! Worse than a rat! . . . Why be on their side? Why do you do it?" She pulls away from him and blows the whistle.

The guards run over and Nicole says the man was trying to send a letter home. She tore it up. Sascha is knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked multiple times. Then he is hit with the rifle butt over and over.

Sascha is taken over to the electrified barbed wire. He is to stand at attention all night in one spot. If he falls asleep and falls forward, he will be electrocuted. If he falls backwards, the guard in the tower will shoot him with the machine gun.

Nicole looks out at Sascha to see how he's doing. The guard is trying to move him off his spot by throwing cigarettes to him, but Sascha is too smart for that.

There is a changing of the guard. One of the Germans wants to push Sascha into the wire, but another German stops him saying he wants to see what Sascha is going to do.

When the barracks are woken up, Sascha is still alive standing where he was placed. He breathes a sigh of relief and so does Nicole.

Nicole takes her work crew out into the woods where men are clearing the brush. Nicole goes to see Sascha. She brings him bread and butter. He scowls at her and knocks the food out of her hand, telling her to go ahead and call her friends. He then asks her if she really thinks that food could get her excused from what she did?

All of a sudden the men hear Katyusha rockets going off somewhere not that far away. Sascha now is happy. He tells Nicole that the rockets are not even 50 miles away. "It's a matter of days now." He is so excited that he will be going home. His speaking of home starts tears running down Nicole's face.  She tells Sascha to run away for there is only one SS guard down by the river and she will distract him. Nicole says there's no telling what the Germans might do to them. She adds that this is the last day that Sascha will have a chance to escape. But Sascha refuses to leave without Nicole.

The German army is retreating. The women see the Germans retreating. The guards push them backwards.

Nicole's Kapo friend says they are all going to die. They will be shipped to a camp where they can handle these matters. They can liquidate more than 5,000 people a day. Nicole looks worried so the Kapo tells her that the auxiliaries like them will be put into the Wehrmacht with a uniform, pay and a clean police record.

Nicole's enemy shows her the dead cat. Nicole says: "Do you know that they're going to kill you, all of you?" This takes the wind right out of the woman's enjoyment of Nicole's grief over her cat.

Nicole now tells Sascha about the German's plans. So the POWs start plotting an escape. What they need is for someone to turn off the electrical power for the camp. The men say that Kapo Nicole could do it because no one would expect her of sabotage.

Nicole hands over an impression of the key to lock and unlock the electrical supply hut. Sascha and the others will make a key from the impression. Nicole tells him that her real name is not Nicole and she is not a criminal. But she is Jewish. Sascha hugs her.

At night Sascha says he will take Nicole back home with him. He says that his father will be a little standoffish at first, but his mother will tell him that Edith is a good girl and say it was a good choice.

Sascha learns that when the high tension system goes off, a siren alarm starts up. Sascha is worried because he doesn't know if Nicole can escape safely after shutting off the electrical power. He tells his comrades that Nicole is barely sixteen years of age and she has already been to hell. But the problem is that Nicole is the only one they can trust to cut the power off.

Nicole and Sascha talk and Sascha tells her that he loves her. And now it's time to start the escape plan.

The trucks are not coming to transport the prisoners. So the Germans decide they will kill all of the prisoners here and now.

The plan has to be delayed because the Germans have called for a roll call. Then they have many of the prisoners dig their own mass grave.

The plan starts again. But this time when Nicole tells Sascha she is going over, he tells her that the alarm siren will go off and the guard will kill her. He tells her she must go. Tears come into her eyes. She leaves.

A fellow Russian calls Sascha a dirty rat and spits in his face. Sascha says he's sure she'll go.

Nicole walked a little bit with the soldier Karl, but the first part of the trip she goes by herself. She looks up into the sky, walks over to the fence to see the grass and the woods beyond. Then she unlocks the door and starts to work on cutting off the electricity.

When the siren goes off the people start running for the fence. The German soldiers start shooting. Karl tries to get into the power house, When he can't he shoots through the door. Nicole is hit by his bullets.

A lot of people are killed in the escape attempt. Sascha doesn't move from his spot at the mass grave. Karl watches as Nicole dies. Sascha still stays as if frozen. He finally starts slowly walking, crying and then yelling: "No! . . . No!"

 

 

My wife and I really enjoyed the film.  This one concentrates on the actions of the Kapos in the concentration camps.  Often these women who came from the prisoners in the concentration camps, were on a day to day basis more brutal to the prisoners than the Germans were. The hero Edith, a girl about 14 years of age, is sent to a concentration camp.  There she witnesses her parents, naked, being forced toward the gas chambers.  Edith starts as a very naive girl, but with time she hardens her heart to deal with all the misery and pain.  Some say she hardened her heart too much.  She becomes a hard Kapo and she is good and tough at her job.  Then Edith (renamed Nicole) meets someone who helps her wake up to what she's doing.  She's more German than the Germans.  This starts Edith to change her ways. 

Susan Strasberg (as Edith, alias Nicole Niepas) was really good and so was Didi Perego (as Sofia). 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

 

 

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