Studio-sore with the compromises of his debut, Gillo Pontecorvo shifted from the allegedly insipid picturesque of The Blue Wide Road to the Big Dark One -- the Holocaust. To film the past is to inquire about it, and Pontecorvo's aim, as in The Battle of Algiers, is to use cinema's tropes to explore history's quandaries. By attempting to recreate the Nazi concentration camps, however, he stumbled upon one of the medium's own quandaries, one illustrated (rather than resolved) by Schindler's List: Can film recreate the horror of human extermination? Should it even try? When George Stevens' cameras first surveyed the piles of corpses at Dachau, there's a palpable withering in the gaze's innocence, so that the director's discretion in filming The Diary of Anne Frank later on is due less to tastefulness than to awareness of the impossibility of truly capturing the horror. Incidentally, Susan Strasberg, the stage's original Anne Frank reincarnation, plays the heroine of Pontecorvo's evocation, a 14-year-old girl who, hauled to the camps and separated from her French-Jewish family, offers her virginity to SS officers, and gets promoted to kapò, keeping the other inmates in line. Her soul, hardened by degradation, eventually awakens via romance with a Russkie prisoner (Laurent Terzieff) and sacrifice in a daring revolt. The depiction of humans systematically torn, corralled and snuffed out is inevitably powerful, though Pontecorvo and his screenwriter, Franco Solinas, blot their effects with rhetoric -- when inmate Emmanuelle Riva kills herself by running into an electrified fence, he can't resist framing the contorted body heroically. The film wails its indignation over the inhumanity of a mountain of corpses, yet its screaming pierces less than the hushed questioning of Night and Fog five years earlier. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce