The Kapo on Film: Tragic Perpetrators and Imperfect Victims

Mark A Drumbl

Abstract


The Nazis coerced and enlisted detainees into the administration of the labour 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 abuse. This project explores treatment of the Kapo on film. This paper considers two films:  Kapò (1959, directed by Pontecorvo, Italy) and Kapo (2000, directed by Setton, Israel).  These two films vary in genre: Kapò (1959) is a feature fiction movie, whereas Kapo (2000) is a documentary. Both films nonetheless vivify themes of agency, blame, survival, shame, sacrifice, and recrimination. This paper interrogates how these creative works speak of victims who victimise others and the pain that results; how these works 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 immigrated 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-victimisers can sooth the criminal law’s anxieties by filling spaces it poorly serves. 


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References


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