What’s it about?
Nearly forty years on, Liliana Cavani’s tale of mad love still bristles with provocation and ill ease. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling buckle the standard tyrant and captive victim setup and play what amounts to a demented version of star-crossed lovers. The Night Porter flirted with Nazi iconography at its own peril and Cavani’s very specific (if flawed) picture allowed for generalised claims to be made about perceived failings and merits. Those expecting cheap titilation and softcore scenes à la other films of its ilk will be disappointed, as this is no exploitation title. It seems most unfair to lump Cavani’s picture in with the likes of Love Camp 7 and Elsa: She-Wolf of the SS.
The Night Porter is indeed a disturbing piece of work but US critic Roger Ebert was way off mark describing it “as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering.” This really does miss the point. It’s a movie about corruption centred on a truly odd coupling that develops between a POW and a man brimming with power. There’s no doubt the pair’s relationship is warped, but Cavani did not set out to eroticise cruelty and mental torture. Instead the film portrays a couple whose dependence on one another transgresses boundaries set in times of war and peace. Lucia is a prisoner and Max, an officer of the Reich. Yet neither is it a traditional tale with love as some kind of equilibrium. Max takes the girl and she ‘learns’ to respond until crippled by confusion. Later in the film, when he ties her up like a dog (so nobody will take her away), Lucia seems completely and irrevocably lost to the world again. The couple have been ruined by the war and are ghosts maintaining a carefully handled facade. A focus on much-discussed Nazi decadence and the Reich’s theatricality are important and hugely complex facets here and whether Night Porter handles them deftly or fumbles such an exploration is wide open to debate.
There are definitely times when Cavani’s picture does bite off more than it can chew. A chamber piece vies with more melodramatic angles for dominance. The supporting characters, too, are pretty stereotypical. But it does serve to separate Max from his fellow brethren somewhat? A group of ex-Nazis hold sessions to eradicate their past lives. They want to move forward and forget everything whereas Max is far more sensitive and uncomfortable. Yet in the post-war years, Europe and far-flung places pockets of former SS and Nazi stooges were hidden away attempting to get on with things as if the theatre of war was a context to behave barbariously and after it was finished normal life resumed. Former industrialists and others with deep ties to the Third Reich went unpunished and continued in powerful positions in West Germany. It is this sort of cultural milieu in which The Night Porter exists. Bogarde also turned up in Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, playing an industrialist in the 1930s during the Nazi party’s rise to power. In the light of post-war reassessment on Europe, in a variety of cultural texts, the Nazis were a hot topic. From auteur-led productions such as The Damned to cheap and nasty exploitation flicks which coasted on notoriety and crassness.
Max is a hotel porter attempting to forget his wartime experiences. Indeed, the central question asked is “Can we be liberated from the past?” One day Lucia, the girl who became his sex slave, turns up at a hotel in Vienna with her composer husband. At first we assume she’ll fight against Max and denounce him, but instead she succumbs to past memories as cruelty and kindness merge. Max himself is prickly before succumbing to the same feelings. No doubt many found this love story plot both galling and outrageous. Lucia’s beauty marked her out for special treatment and Max, a man pretending to be a doctor when he was anything but, used his power as a SS officer to bestow privileges on his ‘little girl’. Clearly such a scenario does not focus on the positive aspects of love and Lucia develops what could be described as Stockholm Syndrome.
The Night Porter is a film that needs careful consideration and not knee-jerk reactions and mispresentation. Cavani presents what is essentially a melodrama exploring how Nazi culture transformed civilised sorts or set free those with masochistic impulses and gave them a free rein. Max might appear ice cold in his shiny and smart uniform but his monstrous form of love saves Lucia, if only for what could be, initially, a purely aesthetic attraction. His administrative power and feelings allows him to keep her from harm. Both Max and Lucia, who barely speaks throughout the film, might seem incomplete characters exactly because they’re deeply fragmented individuals who together make a repulsive whole. They are trying desperately to leave wartime experiences behind but find it will never leave them alone and each reverts to type. A fatalistic air pervades both the WW2-set scenes as well as the 1950s plot.
The film’s most notorious scene, which could be read as fetishising Nazi design, sees Lucia performing a Marlene Dietrich song for a bunch of SS officers. A hint of surrealism depicts officers wearing strange masks and the scene ends with Max presenting a head in a box to Lucia, a reference to the biblical story of Salome. This moment of grim humour shows off Max in all his sickness and desire. The theatricality of such a gesture and Nazi brutality go hand in hand. At some points a dreamlike, operatic sensibility takes over when each character remembers various encounters. In one scene, Lucia lies on a hospital bed as what looks like two men have sex in another bed further way. The use of music and expressionist lighting render this deeply stylised. The other prisoners with their gaunt faces make a chorus of players. Max enters the room, takes no notice of the couple in bed and takes Lucia away like some re-worked debasement of the knight in shining armour.
How’s the picture and sound?
Excellent. The HD transfer presented in the original 1080p transfer does justice to the cold blue, green and grey palette of Alfio Contini’s cinematography. Indeed, the film has probably never looked so good before. Osvaldo Desideri’s production design would be echoed by Pier Paolo Pasolini in Salo: 120 Days of Sodom. Sound options include English – DTS-HD Master Audio (5.1).
The Night Porter is an intriguing film. Both Bogarde and Rampling were brave in taking on this material and although Cavani’s direction is at times calculating in its provocation and holds anti-realist attitudes to Nazi figures, there’s a lot here to … admire? No doubt many will feel shocked by its very premise involving a concentration camp survivor falling for a Nazi officer, but there’s actually no suggestion Lucia is Jewish. She’s the daughter of a political prisoner. It remains a divisive film to this day and will continue to be.
When’s it out?
Monday 30th July