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.
All 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.
Pontecorvo’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.