Edith sacrifices her own identity, becomes the very thing she despises in order to survive, and in death is finally liberated. Director Gillo Pontecorvo contrasts the Holocaust of millions of victims with the insignificant life of one teenage girl, evoking the axiom of Joseph Stalin (a murderous statistician himself), “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”.
Pontecorvo distills the innocence of a young woman into one-hundred proof tragedy; her burgeoning sexuality replaced by animal instinct, drunk on the need to survive. The film begins as Edith finishes her piano lessons and walks home, her Star of David not an icon of her faith but a cruel brand sewed upon her lapel. She turns a corner and a crowd has gathered outside her building where a truck belches poisonous fumes into the thick air, and German soldiers force screaming families into the vehicle. A bystander adjusts Edith’s collar to reveal her brand so she doesn’t draw the attention of the Nazi brutes: this action foreshadows the narrative theme as Edith must eventually forsake her heritage. Suddenly, Edith’s life is changed forever as she witnesses her parents being beaten and taken away; she rushes to their side and becomes just another number, flesh and blood relegated to a brief pencil stroke in the ledger of history whose balance shall always remain in the red. And this is only the first three minutes of the film!
Pontecorvo’s neo-realistic style evokes Rossellini’s War Trilogy, utilizing actual locations and realistic set designs, allowing an almost documentary look into the tragic conditions of a concentration camp. Though professional actors are used, Pontecorvo eschews glamorous highlights and instead focuses upon their filthy existence, covered with sores, dirt, and the grime of death. An eerie score haunts the grey images of this hopeless life, a creaking and disjointed nightmarish echo that reverberates listlessly, unable to discern waking life and delirium.
Edith sees her parents being led to the gas chambers but she is given a second chance to live: she must assume the identity of a dead woman and conceal her Jewish legacy. She is now Nichole, a Polish criminal punished to hard labor, her secret now the mark of the Beast tattooed on her forearm. But Edith gradually becomes this other person, possessed with a fierce desire to live, and soon becomes involved with German soldiers and is promo toted to a domineering Kapo: she thrives while those who suffer their burden of faith physically diminish until it is better to throw oneself upon the electric fence than live another moment. Pontecorvo shows Edith’s change with a calm detachment, unwilling to judge this determined young woman, and breaks convention by allowing the German soldiers to behave with complex virtues, not relegated to clichéd barbarians (one major criticism I extol with SCHINDLER’S LIST).
Unfortunately, the masterful first 45 minutes become tainted by trite melodrama in the second half, as Edith/Nichole falls in love with a Russian POW. But her actions speak louder than the deadly chatter of a MG 42. Final Grade: (B+)