-MONTHLY VHS & DVD REVIEW-
The Night Porter|
cast: Charlotte Rampling, Dirk Bogarde, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti, and Giuseppe Addobbati
director: Liliana Cavani
108 minutes (18) 1974
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Anchor Bay UK DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
I am indebted to the work of the insightful and very readable Arthur Marwick for an
appreciation of this film.
The Night Porter is extremely controversial early 1970s' release that, despite
the 'sex and jackboots' response by sections of the mass media, deflected much of its
criticism through its clearly serious intent, the fact that the director was female,
and the well-documented circumstances behind its appearance.
Director Liliana Cavani made a 1965 documentary for Italian television Women Of The
Resistance, which in the course of interviews with former concentration camp inmates,
brought evidence of guilt, alienation, and misanthropy among survivors. Cavani had an
academic background in Classics, but felt a powerful engagement with contemporary history,
making The History Of The Third Reich in 1962 and The Day Of Peace in 1965;
her concern was that her own generation knew little of the horror that WWII had unleashed.
Despite her documentary background Cavani took pains to stress that The Night Porter
was her own invention, but clearly the feature film translates as a means to come to terms
with much disturbing evidence that her other work had uncovered.
The film is set in Vienna in 1957, a haven for ex-Nazis who have avoided retribution and
are living 'normal' lives. Max (Dirk Bogarde) is the night porter at the Opera Hotel where
a famous American conductor and his wife Lucia (Charlotte Rampling, Swimming Pool,
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead) arrive; Max and Lucia share stares of recognition. Through
a progression of flashbacks we quickly establish that Max has a Nazi past, performing 'medical
examinations' on concentration camp prisoners, and Lucia as a former inmate came under his
Former comrades of Max make contact with him and they speculate whether Lucia is a threat
in the light of recent investigations into the wartime activities of Viennese citizens. Max
murders Mario another potential witness to his past. When Lucia's husband leaves she voices
her intention to stay on and meet him later in Frankfurt. Max confronts Lucia and they rekindle
a relationship that, through the use of flashbacks, has been established as a mixture of cruelty
and tenderness. While Max's ex-comrades declare their continuing allegiance to the Nazi
philosophy, Max and Lucia become virtual prisoners in Lucia's hotel room before attempting
an escape from Vienna over the Danube.
This film remains controversial in its very honest attempt to get inside the heads of torturers
and victims; the 'Stockholm effect' is old hat now but The Night Porter with its imagery
of sex and violence, tenderness and cruelty, refuses to accept black and white definitions of
good and evil. Cavani's response to the disturbing evidence she unearthed about human culpability
in extremis led her to craft a treatment which, like many of the best thrillers, almost forces
empathy with characters to whom the only fit response would seem to be one of revulsion. She was
motivated by her concern that in 1973 when she made the film, Nazism was as powerful philosophy
as in the Vienna of 1957 the film depicts. Cavani has pointed out that the Italian title for the
film Il portiere di notte better translates as 'the porter of the night', night being
Europe's Nazi past and the bleak and troubling catalogue of infamy that the film describes.
The Night Porter
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
A deeply atmospheric product of the 1970s art house cinema scene, Liliana Cavani's The Night
Porter was, at the time of its release, considered to be one of the most shocking films
ever made for its depiction of an obsessive and co-dependent relationship between a member
of the SS and a concentration camp victim.
Set in Vienna in the late 1950s, The Night Porter begins by introducing us to the
character of Max; a quiet and yet clearly well organised man working the night shift as
concierge in a large Viennese hotel. However, Max is also a war criminal awaiting trial
and part of a group of former Nazis who work together to try and escape justice while
denying they did anything wrong during the war. After the murder of a local cook, Max
thinks he is in the clear as all the witnesses to his crimes are dead. However, one day
something happens that throws all of his plans to live quietly "like a church mouse"
into disarray when the wife of a conductor walks into Max's hotel. Instantly the two recognise
each other... they have history... Lucia remembers Max from her time spent in a concentration
camp. As the two stay out of each other's way, the memories start to flow back and when Max
confronts Lucia, it is as if they had never left each other, and that makes them dangerous
and a target.
At the time of The Night Porter's release, the phenomenon that has come to be called
the Stockholm syndrome whereby victims of kidnapping and abuse come to sympathise with their
oppressors was still largely unknown to the general public (indeed, the event that gave the
syndrome its name only occurred in 1973). Indeed, at the time to suggest that a victim of the
Nazis might have anything other than hatred for her oppressors was as close as you could get
to blasphemy in a secular age. The press backlash was predictably venomous and accusations of
sleaze and sensationalism were laid at Cavani's door so thickly that they still haven't completely
dissipated, despite the passage of over 30 years. However, I think it is that very same sleaziness
that ultimately makes this film so good.
Had this film been written any later than it was, it would almost certainly have become tainted
by the bloodless categorisations of psychologists. And, once a psychological problem is understood,
then it becomes no more enigmatic than a common cold. Indeed, had Cavani inspired herself from
the Stockholm syndrome rather than real stories of that syndrome in action during the war then
Max and Lucia's relationship would have been a lot less enigmatic and lot more easy to empathise
with. To be blunt; it is Cavani's lack of psychological knowledge that has kept this film as shocking
and as intriguing as the day it was released.
Operating without the ground-rules laid down by empirical psychology, the relationship between Max
and Lucia becomes a thing of twisted beauty. Far from a simple d/s relationship as some would have
it, the film's central relationship is portrayed as a protean thing where Lucia moves from being
submissive to making Max crawl over broken glass and pay her tribute in the shape of the severed
head of a prisoner who dared to question her motives. In one particularly famous scene, Lucia partly
dons the dress of an SS officer and proceeds to sing a Marlene Dietrich song featuring the lyrics
"If I were to wish for something, I would like to be just a little happy, because if I were too
happy, I would long for suffering." It is the fact that Lucia and Max's relationship transcends
easy classification that ultimately makes it interesting, and happily so, as this film ultimately
stands or falls on the strength of the central relationship and the performance thereof.
It is difficult to think of a cinematic pairing more effective than that of Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte
Rampling. Bogarde plays Max with a brooding intensity undercut by a very Germanic veneer of respectability
and politeness that perfectly complements the cold aloofness and playfulness of Rampling. Indeed, Rampling
also proves to be inspired physical casting as her slight build makes her more than able to play a
teenaged girl and this serves to make the sex scenes seem even more disturbing.
Full of wonderful cinematic moments such as when Lucia's memories of her real adolescence resurfacing
in the form of gunshots at a fair and a ballet-dancing SS officer performing in the middle of a
concentration camp, The Night Porter still has the power to surprise and to shock. In its
depiction of an intriguingly unhealthy relationship it is second to none. However, despite quality
writing and acting, the film never quite manages to come together.
The Night Porter, like many 1970s' art house films, has the feel of a theoretical exercise
about it. Despite the passionate nature of the central relationship, it is difficult to find any
kind of empathy or sympathy for the central characters because Cavani resolutely refuses to delve
into anything that might look like a motivation. Similarly, the secondary plot about Max's relationship
with the former Nazis never convinces as we never truly get to grips with what Max thinks about his
time as a Nazi or with any of the other Nazis and why they think that they are above reproach. Cavani's
systematic refusal to get to grips with the motional nuts and bolts of any of her characters makes for
a frustrating viewing experience as the film is clearly all about powerful emotions but we never get
to understand, let alone feel any of them. As a result, The Night Porter fails to engage and
what could have been a truly great film is merely a half-decent one.