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Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter

October 2006 SITE MAP   SEARCH

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

RATING: 8/10
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 influence.

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

RATING: 6/10
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.

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