The late 1960s to the late 1970s were a time when certain aspects of the cinema confronted issues that were controversial, bordering on unacceptable. In many ways the 1970s was the decade that taste forgot, rejected or decided to mock. It was a time of artistic freedom where filmmakers had the ability to portray confrontational situations and characterisation. It also gave rise to a slew of exploitation, normally low-budget, high ‘shock-value for big-buck returns’ films from emerging film directors that occasionally had strong points, but also had a monumental proportion of freakshow atrocities showing reprehensible depictions of sadism, sex and graphic, torturous, often sexual violence. A strange – and strained – part of this was the Nazi film. These, naturally, resulted in understandable controversy, even when the films – however hard to watch – were actually intellectual examinations of inhumanity, relationships and social structures amidst the atrocities. We could perhaps call these N-art-zi films, and these would include such films as Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (La caduta degli dei – Götterdämmerung ) and Tinto Brass’s Salon Kitty (1976) . The other side of the coin would be the Naszty films, from Love Camp 7 (1969), the notorious Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975) – still banned in the UK – other reprehensible spin-offs like The Beast in Heat (La bestia in calore ) and too many others to mention. The Night Porter most naturally falls into the former category, although like others of its ilk it is by no means an easy watch. Directed and written by Liliana Cavani it remains her most renowned work; despite the number of films to her credit, less than half a dozen received a release in the UK, perhaps the most notable being her version of Ripley’s Game (2002).
Vienna 1957. Maximilian Theo Aldorfer, also known as Max (Dirk Bogarde), has a job in a hotel as a night porter. It’s a rather posh hotel with bourgeois guests who enjoy the city’s cultural and arts events. However Max has a shocking and graphic past. He was an SS officer at a concentration camp and is likely to be brought to trial very soon for his atrocious war crimes. One night at the hotel he briefly encounters Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling), now the wife of a composer conductor who is part of the intellectually adored arts circuit. Lucia recognises him immediately. She had been a prisoner and his sexually violated lover at the concentration camp during the period of the Third Reich. Max seeks to revive the relationship that developed between them, something she too seems keen to engage in despite the fact that their lives have changed significantly in the intervening years. More worryingly, the relationship involved extreme sado-masochism. Both Max and Lucia have a number of decisions to make – between reviving their former connection and their new lives in a very different post-war age.
Although covering recollections of an era that was horrific and sadistic and depicting scenes of savage dominance, The Night Porter is especially bizarre in that behind its central plot and characterisation, revealed through the contemporary society and multiple flashbacks of a past over a decade before, lies a love story. And it’s a love story that shouldn’t work in that Lucia was a very young concentration camp prisoner and Max the SS officer who violated her amidst the multitude of indescribable atrocities he perpetrated. That the romance should still hold some desire for Lucia, now a rich married woman who has clearly moved on with her life, confuses the audience whose only means of understanding this is to relate it to a case of Stockholm syndrome. The desire is immovable to Lucia and will force her current relationships to alter, as Max himself will eventually reject his job for a number of reasons, including the possible imminent trial that, offers a distinct chance of his incarceration. He is part of a group of SS guards from that period who in many ways, while not denying what they did, seem to view the atrocities they committed as simply part of the process. The most open example of this occurs during a flashback when, whilst still a prisoner, Lucia has to engage in a dance of a deliberately sexual nature, topless but dressed in SS uniform and hat, in front of the depraved drinking SS officers. She is, of course, a victim who has no control but, in some ways, has also become a member of their society.
Shocking in its depictions, there are no elements within the film that conceal the sexual abuse, medical experimentation, torture and cruelty. The Night Porter is nevertheless a film that, through its use of characterisation, revelation and even occasionally unexpected reactions (Max has lost none of his brutality in his old age but this somehow reinforces the relationship with Lucia) is a drama that makes for compelling viewing and sticks in the memory long after its shocking if inevitable conclusion. A difficult watch and by no means a pleasant experience but a vital and important one.