The Film: The Night Porter (1974)
The Principles: Liliana Cavani (Screenwriter/Director). Dirk Bogarde. Charlotte Rampling. Phillippe LeRoy. Gabriele Ferzetti.
The Premise: Thirteen years after World War II, a concentration camp survivor named Lucia (Rampling) is checking into a Viennese hotel with her husband when she runs into Max, the night porter (Bogarde), who –as it turns out – is not only former SS but also Lucia’s former captor-slash-torturer-slash-lover. Over the next few weeks they fall back into their sadomasochistic romance as everything else falls apart around them.
Is It Good: Very. And it’s good as a lot of different things simultaneously: as a look at the psychologically recursive nature of trauma; as a transgressive examination of fetishism and kink; as an aesthetic exercise in subtle juxtaposition and even a bit of a rumination on post-war Europe (as filtered through our leads) and, oddly enough, post-war Nazi-ism specifically (as filtered through the supporting players’ narrative).
It’s that whole subtle juxtaposition thing that gives the weightier things their texture. Cavani doesn’t have the most stylish game in town, but she’s got an eye for substance and it’s the way she finds a relationship between very beautiful and very ugly things that adds richness to the whole affair and keeps it from being gratuitous or exploitive. An aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” played over a (presumable) rape scene. A quick, stirring ballet number performed in a room full of SS officers and paraphernalia. It’s not always that overt, but it continues throughout the movie as these two characters fall back into a relationship that’s just as touching as it is painful to watch.
Is It Worth A Look: Without a doubt, but it’s not perfect. The first half – when it’s concentrating solely on Max and Lucia – is wonderful and engaging. But as it tries to weave the subplot with the other former SS officers into the main narrative it tends to lose its focus and gets a little clumsy, which makes the mechanics of their relationship lose their balance a bit and the whole thing becomes a little awkward and wobbly. So wobbly, in fact, that the ending loses a lot of the poignancy and thematic resonance it was probably intended to have and – while still interesting and provocative in its own way – ends up feeling more gratuitous than it should have.
Random Anecdotes: Speaking of which, Ebert ripped the film apart calling it “…a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering.” I cherish the man as much as the next cinephile but dude was way off. Presumably he’s (at least partly) referring to the iconic scene where an emaciated, topless Lucia performs for a roomful of SS officers (it’s an image that Criterion brilliantly lifted for their cover), and yeah – it’s explicit in that it’s kind of sexy in a really uncomfortable way but – again – that’s the entire point. It’s a little disappointing to see such a reactionary opinion to a movie that doesn’t require THAT much effort to pick up what it’s putting down, ya know?
Cinematc Soulmates: I gotta be honest – it’s 1am and I can’t think of any outside of arbitrarily listing Cavani’s other stuff or listing other movies that Ebert wagged his finger at. I’ve let you all down. Mea culpa.