(28/09/06) – Liliana Cavani’s emblematic 1970s arthouse ‘shocker’ The Night Porter is one of those films that history has consigned to a cabinet of officially ‘controversial films’, largely thanks to the film’s own publicity rocket, but also to misconceptions concerning its content. As Anchor Bay re-releases the film on DVD in a package that includes interviews with Liliana Cavani and the film’s star, Charlotte Rampling, from today’s perspective it doesn’t appear shocking or controversial, but more of a simulataneously monotonous and compelling curiosity of subtle intelligence.
Rampling (who had previously appeared in Visconti’s The Damned, which pioneered the screen sexualisation of Nazis, plays Lucia, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp who arrives at a Vienna hotel in 1957 with her American classical composer husband. At the check-in counter, Lucia’s prisoner past appears in front of her in the shape of Dirk Borgarde’s porter, who is in fact an ex-Nazi officer called Max. With the help of sumptuous, elegantly set flashbacks, we see that Lucia and Max had a sadistic affair in the camps. While at first you assume she will run for her life, it gradually becomes transparent that the two were deeply in love, and their incidental re-encourter reignites their passion.
Like all period films, The Night Porter is etched on a recognisably 1970s European arthouse template (a slightly casual narrative, bleak, uncertain atmosphere, blatant sexuality) and its downbeat grandeur is redolent of Cavani’s counterpart, Visconti. Charlotte Rampling is a vision of waify, androgynous beauty in the flashback scenes, another sign of Cavani’s sexually ambiguity, although she went for an all-out homoerotic story with The Berlin Story (1985).
The shocking element of the film, of course, is its imagining to be possible that there can be love between victim and perpetrator, especially in the context of the Holocaust. But ruling it out would be underestimating the complexity of the human psyche. Besides, the film is clearly focused on one woman’s story and nothing else. Cavani says she based her script (co-written with Italo Moscati, also interviewed for the DVD extras) on the accounts of a Milanese Jewish woman she once met. She also talks about how the Germans who lived through the war were in denial about their guilt (Max is part of a Nazi therapy group awaiting trial) and transferred it to the next generation.
Then there’s the famous S&M content of the film. Times have changed too dramatically since the early 1970s and from today’s point of view there’s nothing shocking as far as the imagery goes. In fact, it all feels kind of jaded and empty; the characters are trapped in the ruins of an old-fashioned European decadent style that died during the war. Metaphorically, they are dead too. Rampling is perfectly cast in the film with her cold, cadaverous sort of beauty, a well lived-in casket of world-weary aloofness.
The Night Porter really is a love story, albeit one embedded cruelty, perversity and guilt. Lucia and Max are disturbed people and the role-playing dynamics of their relationship could be read as a form of reconciling the past, although Cavani intelligently avoids theorising too much about human desire. Over thirty years after its release, The Night Porter remains a curious text that is neither too fascinating or pernicious. It’s just a film and one that remains hermetically sealed within its own cinematic universe.
The Night Porter is out on Anchor Bay. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and help support Kamera by doing so.