I saw Kapo (1959) on TCM last Friday. Gillo Pontecorvo's film is everything that Spielberg's Schindler's List is not--where Spielberg's flick shows the Jews as purely victims or survivors, passive receivers of their fate, only Schindler and Fiennes' Nazi officer seen in any kind of complicated light, Kapo focuses on one Jewish character, Susan Strasberg's Edith, and gives us a detailed view of her and her motives.
The film begins strictly from Edith's point of view: we're right beside her when she walks home and realizes that her parents are being arrested (nice touch, the parent's inexplicably cut phone call ), and we know what an unbelievably stupid--yet inevitable and brave, considering her age--act it was to run after them.
She undergoes a series of experiences that, on one side, miraculously puts her in a 'good' work camp (she's no longer a Jew, but a criminal named Nicole), but on the other side, takes away her identity and ultimately her humanity. Pontecorvo leads us through this transformation step by step, so while she becomes a hardened kapo and an unfeeling bitch, she never loses our sympathy because we know exactly what she's gone through. Then love enters her life...and provides the final impetus towards her ultimate destiny.
I'd love to call it neorealist--Pontecorvo I think mentions he's inspired by those films, and it has the directness and simplicity of that kind of filmmaking, only the concentration camp sets and smoothness of Pontecorvo's direction (lengthy takes with elaborate camera moves) tends to mark the film as, well, better-funded than an ordinary neorealist production (I'd say Battle of Algiers, though equally well-funded, has a better claim on being a visual descendant).
I also noticed how closely Strasberg's character resembles a great character in Philippine cinema--Nora Aunor's Rosario in Mario O'Hara's Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976)--both are women forced by circumstance to collaborate (so to speak) with the enemy, and both find themselves struggling on the wrong side towards the end of the war. Pontecorvo's film is great, great, great, Strasberg is wonderful, and the character has a skein of complex emotions and series of ironies that the Filipino film doesn't go into (interesting that, while Strasberg loves the Russian soldier, her sympathies, after the final epiphany, are with the Nazi officer), but I can't help feeling that Aunor's character captures a broader range of experience (she, for one, has a child by the enemy officer, and much of her rage and shame focuses on the child), and that O'Hara's film has the bleaker, more realistic ending.