Set in 1957 Vienna, Liliana Cavileri's film, The Night Porter is a disturbing, mesmerising psycho-drama that viewers seem either to love or loathe. The majority who have written about it seem to loathe it, and one reviewer has even suggested that only individuals who have been sexually abused in childhood would enjoy this film, so it is with some trepidation that I say that The Night Porter is one of my favourite films. (And no, I was definitely not sexually abused in childhood!)
To be sure, this is not a film for everyone. Its subject matter is dark and difficult. The fascinating, if twisted, story is about the revival of an intense relationship that had started in a Nazi concentration camp—between Max, an SS officer and Lucia, one of the inmates.
Max is now, in 1957, a night porter in a hotel—the hotel that Lucia happens to visit with her husband, a conductor on an opera tour. Max works at night because he feels shame in the light.
Both Lucia and Max are visibly shocked to see each other again, but despite Lucia's consequent strange behaviour, her very nice but insensitive husband does not really notice. Perhaps it is the glaring contrast between her husband's lack of presence, passion and engagement with her, and Max's intense presence and engagement with her, that draws Lucia back in to the relationship with her ex-lover. Max “sees” her; but to her husband, important parts of her are invisible.
Max himself is in conflict about starting up the relationship again, because he senses that if he does, all is lost. His Nazi colleagues are gradually “filing away” all who may have witnessed any of their atrocities, and the last thing Max wants is for them to get their hands on Lucia. Striking up the relationship again is fraught with danger for both of them.
But when, at the opera, he looks at Lucia, and Lucia cannot resist turning her head to meet his gaze (and at a point in the opera where the words being sung are about how love sweetens troubles and all creatures sacrifice to love), Max, too, is drawn inexorably.
Despite what some reviewers seem to think, The Night Porter is absolutely not a skin flick, and nor is it a Nazi exploitation flick. But if you dislike films that depict Nazi decadence and cruelty, you might be unable to appreciate or even see the most interesting, compelling themes of the film.
It is a film about a relationship. It is about the power of a human connection and a little tenderness in an extreme situation—and about the power of extreme situations to create passion. It is about the psychological power (for some) of an intense relationship over an ordinary, non-passionate one. It is about how intoxicating relationships having an element of control/power can be—and how intoxicating a mixture violence and loving tenderness can be. It is perhaps a warning about the all-consuming and potentially self-destructive power of an intense relationship.
It is also about the fact that even in the most frighteningly non-consensual situation imaginable, it is sometimes possible for a person to experience pleasure.
The relationship is not sadomasochistic in the sense you might imagine if you are familiar with the BDSM community. This film is not a pornographic movie. There are no explicit sex scenes in it. If it is sadomasochistic, its sadomasochism is more in the atmosphere and edgy tension of the film and in the psychology of the main characters than anything else.
The Night Porter has some very memorable scenes, and the acting of the main characters is superb. The subtlety and complexity of Charlotte Rampling's Lucia is staggering. It could have been played so badly, but Charlotte Rampling had the courage and the insight and the ability to give a breathtakingly brilliant performance, conveying strength as well as vulnerability, peacefulness as well as terror, intense desire as well as numbness, power and control as well as submission, lightness as well as darkness, heaven as well as hell.
Dirk Bogarde too appears to have put his heart and soul into his role as Max. The tenderness and love he conveys, along with the cruelty and deranged violence, the despair, the joy, the power, the control, and also irritation with his subservient position as a hotel night porter called to serve unworthy guests in trivial and onerous ways, and so many other things, is exquisite.
There are some wonderful shots of post-war Vienna, and the colour palate of the film is predominantly bleak greys. This, and the soundtrack, which has lots of silence interspersed with the odd mournful clarinet or oboe refrain, reflect and enhance the melancholic atmosphere of the film.
Liliana Cavani has an eye for psychologically difficult and tension-increasing juxtapositions. In one scene, we hear Mozart's pure and heavenly music about the higher purpose of love and man and wife, while a concentration camp guard buggers a male prisoner, presumably not entirely consensually! In another scene, there is the eroticism of a topless dance together with the ghastly truth that the woman is dancing for the concentration camp guards who hold her and may one day execute her. In another, there is extreme violence mixed with passionate love. It is these kinds of exquisite juxtapositions, and its taboo-violating themes, that make this film so disturbing—and so compelling for those of us who like that kind of thing.
The Night Porter is not a perfect film—for one thing, the ending is a bit weak—but it may nevertheless speak to some Taken In Hand readers. It speaks to me, anyway!
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