The Kapo on Film: Tragic Perpetrators and Imperfect Victims
47 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2016
Date Written: October 20, 2016
The Nazis compelled, enlisted, and ‘promoted’ detainees into the administration of the labor and death camps. These detainees were called Kapos. The Kapos constitute a particularly contested, and at times tabooified, element of Holocaust remembrance. Some Kapos deployed their situational authority to ease the conditions of other prisoners, while others acted cruelly and committed abuses. This project explores treatment of the Kapo on film. This paper considers two films: Kapò (1959 dir. Pontecorvo (Italy)) and Kapo (2000 dir. Setton (Israel)), and additionally one stage play, Kapo in Jerusalem (2013 dir. Lerner (Israel)) which derives from a film of the same title (2014 dir. Barbash (Israel)). While these works do not explicitly consider international criminal law, they vivify themes of agency, blame, survival, shame, sacrifice, and recrimination with which law grapples. These two films vary in genre: a pulpy feature fiction film (Kapò (1959)) and a controversially-received documentary reportage (Kapo 2000); the stageplay (Kapo in Jerusalem), itself derivative of a film of the same title, is a fictional (and gripping) drama drawn from the experiences of an actual Auschwitz Kapo. This paper interrogates how these creative works portray victim-perpetrator circularity; how they contribute to history, memory, and recollection; and didactically how they explain ‘what happened,’ ‘why,’ and ‘what to do now’. This paper additionally contrasts cinematographic accounts and criminal law’s accounts, in particular, those in Israel’s Kapo trials. In the 1950’s, the Knesset passed legislation – the Nazi and Nazi Collaboration Punishment Act – to criminally charge suspected Jewish Kapos who had emigrated to the state of Israel following the Holocaust. Authorities conducted approximately forty prosecutions. The trials were awkward, the language of judgment gnarly, the absolutes of conviction or acquittal crudely reductionist, and the judges ‘trembled’ at having to sentence. This paper contends that cinematographic depictions of victim-victimizers can sooth the criminal law’s anxieties by filling spaces ill-served by the criminal law.
Keywords: Kapo, Criminal Law, International Criminal Law, Abuses, Recollection, Victim-Perpetrator Circularity, Sacrifice, Shame, Survival
JEL Classification: K10, K14, K42
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation