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“Kapò” and “The Missing Person” on DVD

“Kapò” and “The Missing Person” on DVD (photo)

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Once upon a time, one of the best film critics in any language, a Frenchman named Serge Daney, found himself at 17 inspired toward his vocation by a single line of writing — about a film he’d never seen, and would never see.

The film was Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Kapò” (1959), and the first reviewer, the firestarter, was none other than Jacques Rivette, already on his way to being one of the world’s greatest and most fiercely principled filmmakers. The piece was in Cahiers du Cinéma in 1961. This is the line that changed Daney’s life: “…Look however in ‘Kapò,’ the shot where [Emmanuelle] Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on electric barbed-wire: the man who decides at this moment to make a forward tracking shot to reframe the dead body — carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final framing — this man is worthy of the most profound contempt.”

Stings the corneas, doesn’t it? Daney’s famous essay “The Tracking Shot in Kapò” — you can find it translated online — was written years later, and without firsthand knowledge of the film. The film, after all, was irrelevant to Daney’s program — it was Rivette’s insistence on cinema and its form being a matter of ethics that drove Daney forward. And both critics are absolutely correct — cinematic images are a matter of ethics, of respecting the moral value of the subject and the intelligence of the viewer, of creating a world in which the way we see things reflects a functioning moral compass. Daney spent a good part of his career railing against the so-called “‘Kapò’-ization” of modern movies, before he died in 1992 of an AIDS-compromised immune system more likely plagued by bad movies and cinephilic outrage than anything else.

04132010_Kapo2.jpgAll of which is decidedly beside the point of “Kapò” itself, except that the film has been out of circulation so long — more famous, in fact, for Daney’s evocation of Rivette than for any actual viewings — that the question eventually arose (in British and French film magazines of the last decade, mostly) of whether Rivette’s account was reliable and whether the “tracking shot” actually exists. This took on the usual tone of sectarian film critic spitting matches — imagine monstrous, toothless walruses hurling phlegm loudly but harmlessly at each other — until whoever owned the film reinjected it into the mainstream, first for cable broadcast and now as a Criterion “Essential Art House” DVD, and we can see for ourselves that, yes, there is the tracking shot in “Kapò,” just as Rivette described it, though perhaps so brief it may hardly qualify by today’s standards.

It’s probably just as well that Daney, writing in the ’80s, never saw “Kapò” — his mojo would’ve taken a hit, since in comparison to the heyday of Spielberg, Lucas et al., the tiny manipulations in Pontecorvo’s chilling Holocaust film are absurdly small potatoes. Nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, the movie is a perfectly harrowing wail of postwar, post-Neo-Realist historical filmmaking, closer to the ashen psychodramas of Wajda than to the guerrilla tension Pontecorvo brought to “The Battle of Algiers.”

Released the same year as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” Pontecorvo’s film was the first major European production depicting life inside the Nazi camps, and, as the title suggests, it’s a milieu primed for some heavy self-loathing. (The film is Italian, and then from a culture particularly torn between guilt and victimhood.) The brand of intimate evil perpetrated by the Kapòs, or prisoner-functionaries, who brutalized fellow prisoners in exchange for privilege and survival, is the crux here, as a 20-year-old Parisian Susan Strasberg, having starred in the Broadway production of “Anne Frank” just a few years earlier, is shipped out to Auschwitz and then a Polish labor camp, and eventually, accidentally, becomes a Kapò herself, a soul-wasted servant of genocide amid a crowd of starving women.

04132010_Kapo3.jpgPontecorvo’s recreation of the labor camp landscape is appalling in its scope and detail. There’s a veracity when Europeans in the middle century make movies about the war that American filmmakers can never touch, even Rivette didn’t seem to mind that the prisoners of “Kapò” all look far too healthy after years of hard camp labor (as they even did in the 1948 Auschwitz film “The Last Stage” — conventions die hard). But “Kapò” is necessary and incisive, and deserves a high shelf in the troubled history of the Holocaust film, which has lately become so poisoned by complacency and glamour. “Contempt,” I dare say not, as even Rivette might not, given the intervening decades of amoral tripe.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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