The Night Porter: movie review

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!

If you would like to discuss any relevant issues raised by the film, do post your thoughts in the comments below. IF WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY OR DISCUSS MIGHT SPOIL THE FILM FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT SEEN IT, PLEASE DO SO ON THE PAGE LINKED HERE INSTEAD. Thanks!

the boss

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Comments

Keeping reality and fiction straight in one's mind

Someone has already suggested that I seek psychiatric help because I like this film.

One thing I think it is worth remembering, when watching a film like this, is that it is F-I-C-T-I-O-N! And in fiction all sorts of wild and crazy things happen, that we can enjoy in a film but not in real life. (And actually, even if it were based on fact as in the case of Schindler's List, enjoying the film would not usually mean that one is a Nazi or psychologically troubled. It just might be an interesting film that raises lots of interesting issues!)

Film is (in this case at least) a way of exploring the human condition. It can spark useful ideas, lines of thought, and discussions. If you happen to like a film it doesn't normally mean that you want to go through what the characters in the film have gone through. You might in some cases, but in films like this, I should have thought that you are more likely to want to just watch the film from the safety of your home with a nice cup of tea or something. I certainly have no wish whatsoever to be a Lucia, any more than I have a wish to be a (Walt Disney, 1938) Snow White, or indeed one of the dwarfs, but I like both films.

If this seems difficult to grasp, either you need to watch a lot more films, or perhaps watching films is not for you.

Re: The Night Porter

the boss....I enjoyed reading your review of Night Porter. I'll try and watch the movie...it sounds like it would be better than reading the book in this case even though Amazon gives the book a four star rating (out of five!).

I also thought it charming, as I am sure you did, that some one stood up to the plate and suggested you might wish to seek psychiatric help because you enjoyed this film. You knew this already, didn't you? I mean about needing psychiatric help? Gracious! It's okay to admit it, you are among supportive friends, many of whom might very well seek counsel with you on the understanding couch of the Man from Vienna....could you imagine what the great shrink himself would have to say about us all?

As my own review, without having the chance yet to watch the movie, I could not help but notice that according to Amazon people who buy this DVD also seem to to like DVDs with titles such as:
1. Seduction==Cruel Woman
2. Preaching to the Perverted
3. The Story of O
4. Anatomy of Hell

I have seen Story of O. I liked that movie when it came out. I might be interested in "Seduction--Cruel Woman" if someone whose tastes I liked gave it a good review. I can't say i would be automatically attracted to title such as "Preaching to the Perverted"....Well, okay, I do write here and else where, but I don't think that *really* counts, does it? And "Anatomy of Hell?" Well, I have enjoyed a few good war flicks even though I don't like them in general. .I can't really think of more powerful and more closely connected relationships than those developing out of the passion of war--.nor can I think of a better description of hell. Yet somehow I doubt if this is what this particular anatomy of hell is about..

I have found my own psychiatric solution in petting my cat. Who really needs anything else? Well, that's my view.

Take care...Frank

People who buy The Night Porter...

Frank, you listed some films that amazon say that people who bought The Night Porter also bought.

I strongly advise you not to conclude that The Night Porter is even remotely similar to any of these films. Not that I have seen most of them, but they sound like porn to me, and a friend of mine has seen another one (Maitresse) that came up in a similar list on amazon.com, and he said it was nothing like The Night Porter, and that it was an awful film. So do be careful!

I can't really think of another film that The Night Porter is like, but it has more in common with, say, Straw Dogs, than with any porn film. (It is not really anything like Straw Dogs either!) Or perhaps if you think of the atmosphere of an Ingmar Bergman film like Fanny and Alexander, that might give you a better idea of the feeling of the film.

Yes to fiction

I can now count the viewing of this amazing film as one of the many benefits I have garnered from my exploration of this website. As a student of German culture, this film was most satisfying to me in its portrayal of the callous inhumanity of the Nazi regime, as well as the ultimate humanity of one of its officers. Once again, it seems, the ideal of beauty seems to win out, even though the particular situation portrayed is full of pathology and catastrophic abuse.

The intensity of the attraction between the two main characters is played so well, especially by Charlotte Rampling, that one cannot help but envy them in their rapture. The fictional medium allows for the most extreme exploration of the dynamics of domination, and yet the cinematography is tasteful and suggestive rather than brutally graphic. The plot moves in a smoothly calculated fashion, and the setting, clothing and dialogue are of classic quality. A real sleeper -- I had never even heard of this film before! I suspect it is the sort of thing that my love partner would enjoy (she goes for historical intrigue, espionage, strong male leads a la Mad Men, Bletchley Circle, Homeland etc.), and I hope to watch it with her soon and see where it leads.

Thanks Boss!

The Night Porter

I went to see this film a few years after it came out because I had heard it was about a sado-masochistic relationship and I thought I might find it sexy, since I had a hankering for some kind of relationship with a dominant man.

It didn't do anything for me though because the things that happen between the couple are too extreme for me, even though they obviously love each other. I knew that whatever I wanted, it definitely wasn't an ex-Nazi who would do the sort of things to me that Max did in this film.

However, Max evidently struck a chord with a lot of women, because I remember seeing an interview with Dirk Bogarde on TV a while ago in which he said, in a baffled sort of way, that after the film came out he was innundated with letters from women asking him "Where can I find a Max?"

Max is for women who want something dangerous in their lives, whereas I wanted someone who would make me feel safe, but there are evidently a lot of women out there who do want a Max.

The Night Porter

I haven't seen The Night Porter though at the time it came out I was definitely curious. (I thought sadomasochistic might mean there was a spanking in the film. LOL, was I naive!)

I know I would have a hard time appreciating it or feeling any sympathy for Max because of my family background and the fact that relatives of mine were murdered by Nazis. Perhaps if it were science fiction and he was cast in much the same role but on another planet I could appreciate it better.

It's interesting that you say there was love between them and tenderness even with the violence. I always had the impression that it was more of an obsession, something they couldn't keep away from, like an addiction or moths to the flame. I certainly could not see it as any indication of a healthy relationship though as I said I was very curious to see the film.

Re: The Night Porter

I can understand you not wanting to see the film, and other films with this kind of theme, but I did not find it in any way harrowing, unlike Schindler's List and various documentaries I have watched about the Holocaust. It isn't about that, it is about the relationship between the two.

If anything I wrote implied that theirs was a healthy relationship, I wrote very badly! The relationship between Max and Lucia is indeed obsessive and unhealthy, but love can be obsessive, can't it? Anyway, as I said before, it is no good regarding this film as an example of how to live. It is a story and a cautionary tale, not a How-to for budding sadomasochists. (And I still baulk at the “sadomasochistic” description, because it will have readers imagining an SM film like The Story of O, whereas it is nothing like that in any way. The Night Porter is a psycho-drama, not a porn film.)

BTW, I notice that Gloria Brame also likes The Night Porter!