Kapo (1960): Gillo (Battle of Algiers) Pontecorvo’s Holocaust Tale, Sarring American Susan Strasberg and French Laurent Terzieff

Gillo Pontecorvo directed Kapo, a well-intentioned but severely flawed Holocaust melodrama, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, possibly due to dealing with a significant topic.

Kapo film.jpg

Italian film poster


The Italian-speaking film was an Italian-French co-production, shot in Yugoslavia.

Teenager Edith (Susan Strasberg) and her Jewish parents are sent to a concentration camp, where the latter are killed.

Sofia (Didi Perego), an older political prisoner, and a kindly camp doctor, save her from a similar fate by giving her a new, non-Jewish identity of the newly dead Nichole Niepas.

Gradually, she becomes hardened to the brutal life at the camp. She first sells her body to German guard in return for food. Then she becomes fond and shows affection for another guard, Karl (Gianni Garko).

The fraternization helps her become a kapo, one of those put in charge of the other prisoners. She thrives while the more idealistic Sofia grows weaker.

When she falls in love with Sascha (Laurent Terzieff), a Russian prisoner of war, Edith is persuaded to play a crucial role in mass escape, turning off the power.

Most of the would-be escapees are killed, but some get away. As Edith lies dying, she tells Karl, “They screwed us over, Karl, they screwed us both over.”

She dies while saying the traditional Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael.


Susan Strasberg as Edith, alias Nicole Niepas
Laurent Terzieff as Sascha
Emmanuelle Riva as Terese
Didi Perego as Sofia
Gianni Garko as Karl
Annabella Besi
Graziella Galvani
Paola Pitagora
Eleonora Bellinzaghi
Bruno Scipioni
Dragomir Felba
Dušan Perković as Commandant


Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
Written by Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Produced by Franco Cristaldi, Moris Ergas
Cinematography Aleksandar Sekulović
Music by Carlo Rustichelli
Distributed by Cineriz

Release date: September 29, 1960 (Italy)

Running time: 116 minutes

Pontecorvo was criticized for making a melodrama full of sentimental clichés and entrusting the debasement and regeneration of his heroine to a mediocre actress, American Susan Strasberg (daughter of Lee Strasberg of Actors Studio’s fame), who was dubbed.

The result is an overheated melodrama which does disservice to the enormity of its subject, even as some of the camps’ horrors of are quasi-realistically portrayed.

In an article for The Wall Street Journal, philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote: Pontecorvo earned “the deepest contempt” of French director Jacques Rivette in an article in Cahiers du cinéma nearly 50 years ago for a scarcely more insistent shot in the 1959 film “Kapo.” The shot was of the raised hand of actress Emmanuelle Riva, her character Terese electrocuted on the barbed wire of the concentration camp from which she was trying to escape.

The criticism hung over Pontecorvo until his dying day. He was ostracized, almost cursed, for a shot, just one.

Lévy contrasted this reaction to one shot with what he asserted is the garish exploitation of Nazi history in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Shutter Island (2010).

Oscar Context:

Kapo represented Italy at the 1960s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar but did not win; the honor went to Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.

Films directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

The Wide Blue Road (1957)

Kapo (1960)

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Burn! (1969)

Ogro (1979)


TCM showed the movie on Nov 29 as a tribute to Emmanuelle Riva (alongside with Hiroshima Mon Amour)