Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, this film tells a compelling, realistic story about a young Jewish girl, played by Susan Strasberg (some of her best acting too), who must change in order to survive imprisonment in a camp in World War II Germany. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, who shared writing credits with Franco Solinas.
Edith (Strasberg), feeling safe in Paris, returns home to find her Jewish parents being rounded up by the Nazis. Though she is told to escape, by those in the crowd and her own parents, she doesn't and is also taken. Soon, the whole family finds themselves at Auschwitz, and being separated into groups (men, women, children, etc.). There, Edith (Strasberg) learns from another child that the children and old people are to be executed. While the guards are distracted, she makes her way out of that building and runs into another prisoner, Sofia, who takes her to a prisoner doctor that tends to the infirm. Fortunately for Edith, a young woman has died in his clinic that night and he is able to transform her into non-Jew Nicole, cutting her hair and dressing her in that prisoner's clothes. He arranges for her to be assigned to a work detail with Sofia, and soon, she is on a train to a work camp. But, only after she witnesses her parents being herded naked, with the children and other old people, to their certain death.
Of course, things are pretty awful at the camp she is taken to as well. The labor is hard, the food is terrible and scant, and the women are regularly subjected to screenings (dubbed "selections") to see if they are too sick or weak to continue to work. If so, they are returned to Auschwitz. Nicole is so cold one day that she runs into a small building and burns herself hugging a heater. At the next screening, she keeps her injured hands from being discovered by showing her bare chest to the officer doing the inspection. However, her friend Sofia is selected and refuses to go quietly.
Soon, one of the Kapò women, prisoners who are assigned to keep their peers in line (in essence, working for their captors), suggests that she might make a good companion for the SS officers. She asks if she will be fed, and (though she is a virgin) agrees when the answer is yes. After some time has passed (more than a year), with Nicole looking well fed and her hair grown out, she is given an opportunity to be a Kapo herself, and comes to be resented by her former fellow prisoners. One of these, who had previously insisted that she would never lose her dignity, does so with tragic results.
Later, a whole squadron of Russian soldiers are marched into the prison as captives, and it is after this that the story changes. The end of the war is near, and the 50 minutes or more of the film gives Nicole a love interest, a chance to be free again & to regain her conscience, or not. Though more hopeful than the first half of the film, the end is consistent with the depressing nature and horrific reality of what was a terrible part of history.