‘Kapò': portraying the unthinkable in art

Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Kapò,” a concentration-camp drama from 1959, is neither a great nor a terrible movie, but it has a special place in the history of Holocaust films (and of film criticism). It is a flash point in a long-running debate -- one that surrounds films as different as “Schindler’s List” and “Inglourious Basterds” -- about the responsibilities and the limitations of cinema when it comes to depicting a historical atrocity.

“Kapò" is being released this week on DVD through Criterion’s Essential Art House line, which offers no-frills editions of titles from the company’s back catalog at a reduced price ($19.95, or as part of a six-film boxed set, $99.95).

Co-written by Franco Solinas and Pontecorvo (who would go on to make his best-known and most widely acclaimed film, “The Battle of Algiers,” in 1966), “Kapò" focuses on the dehumanizing toll of survival in an inhuman situation. Edith, a Jewish teenager in occupied Paris, is bundled off to the camps with her family within the first few minutes of the film. Played by Susan Strasberg, who had originated the title role in “The Diary of Anne Frank” on Broadway, Edith is saved by a fellow prisoner, who helps her impersonate a non-Jewish inmate. After watching her parents being led off to the gas chamber, she’s transferred to a labor camp, where she sells herself to SS officers in exchange for food and an improved standing (she’s eventually promoted to warden, or “kapo”).

Some have argued that art is fundamentally ill-equipped to capture a horror as unthinkable as the Holocaust. (The German critic Theodor Adorno’s assertion that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” is usually simplified into a moral injunction against art about the Holocaust.) In this discussion, “Kapò" has often been held up as an exhibit for the prosecution. The best-known review of the film by far is a brief notice, published in the French journal Cahiers du cinéma in 1961, by the critic-turned-filmmaker Jacques Rivette, titled “On Abjection.”

Building on his colleague Jean-Luc Godard’s famous declaration that tracking shots are a question of morality, Rivette zeros in on the death scene of Terese, an inmate played by Emmanuelle Riva. After Terese throws herself on an electrified wire fence, the camera moves in to reframe the corpse, calling attention to her limp, dead hand. It is a relatively brief shot, not especially flamboyant, but in context, it is at best gratuitous and at worst vulgar, an aesthetic intrusion for which, Rivette wrote, Pontecorvo “deserves only the most profound contempt.”

In 1992, the influential critic Serge Daney wrote an essay, titled “The Tracking Shot in ‘Kapo’ ” and considered a landmark piece in French film criticism, about his cinephilic coming of age. It was not the film (which Daney had never seen) but Rivette’s review that made an impression on his younger self, and that defined his ethical compass as a writer and viewer.

The subject of the Holocaust clearly resonated with Pontecorvo (1919-2006), who was Jewish and who, as a member of the Italian Communist Party, fought in the anti-fascist resistance during World War II.

“Kapò" is not without powerful moments.

But the unease the film provokes, beyond its dubious cinematographic flourishes, has to do with the indecency of molding real-life atrocity to conform to narrative cliches and contrivances.

Rivette and Daney were not declaring the Holocaust off-limits to artists. Both wrote admiringly of Alain Resnais’ haunting, tough-minded documentary “Night and Fog” (1955). And both were examining larger issues of voyeurism and pornography, which apply to any subject that lends itself to obscenity and exploitation.

There is no exact science to the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. But it is also not that complicated.

In figuring out how one feels when confronted with abject spectacles on-screen, it is often a relatively simple matter of questioning -- to borrow Daney’s memorable phrase -- “the difference between what is just and what is beautiful.”