Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1960, Gillo Pontecorvo's second film Kapo features Susan Strasberg as a Holocaust victim who decides that she will do anything to survive, even join the enemy. Kapo, which stands for Kameradenpolizei, refers to death camp collaborators who are recruited from the "criminal element" to supervise other prisoners in return for better treatment and more privileges. Pontecorvo, who fought in the Italian Resistance as a member of the Communist Party, presents a realistic picture of what life in a concentration camp must have been like but no movie can fully capture the madness and inevitably any attempt to dramatize it must take on aspects of melodrama.
Strasberg... portrays Edith, a 14-year old Jewish girl who is sent to a concentration camp with her parents when Jews are rounded up in Paris. After watching her parents die in the gas chambers along with other women and children, Sofia, a friend, introduces Edith to the camp doctor who provides her with a new identity as the non-Jewish Nicole. Cutting her hair and dressing her in the work clothes of a prisoner that died that morning, she is sent to a labor camp where she witnesses repeated horrors including the hanging of a young girl for alleged sabotage.
Desperate to stay alive, she offers herself to a German soldier Karl (Gianni Garko). Although little about this relationship is developed, it leads to Nicole accepting the job of a Kapo, and the victim becoming a victimizer, brutally enforcing the camp's harsh rules on her fellow prisoners. It is only when she witnesses the suicide of a close friend Terese (Emanuelle Riva) and falls in love with Sascha (Laurent Terzieff), a Russian prisoner of war, that she is able to redeem the human values that had once been an integral part of her life. Much of this happens over a period of time but the passage of time is not shown and Nicole's transformation from a loving young girl to a bullying camp guard seems too quick and facile to be truly convincing, and there is little self-reflection in the process. The experience gained in this film, however, paved the way for Pontecorvo's masterpiece The Battle of Algiers, only a few years after. (IMDB Howard Schumann)