In Liliana Cavani's scintillating drama, a concentration camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) discovers her ex-torturer/lover (Dirk Bogarde) working as a night porter at a hotel in postwar Vienna. When the couple attempt to ... more »re-create their sadomasochistic relationship, his former SS comrades begin to stalk them. Operatic and disturbing, The Night Porter deftly examines the cruelty and decadence of Nazi culture.« less
""The Night Porter" must have been one of those films that shocked people when it first came out. Directed by Liliana Cavani and sporting a garish cover on the Criterion Collection DVD (yes, the cover image does come from a scene in the movie, but not in the way you would think), "The Night Porter" deals with extremely unpleasant psychological situations stemming from the holocaust. The film is definitely not for everyone, but those capable of keeping an open mind may find much to like about this generally repulsive piece of art house cinema. You have to hand it to Criterion for continuing to release pristine transfers of films considered anathema to mainstream audiences. My experiences with this DVD company have introduced me to such wondrous delights as "Blood for Dracula," "Man Bites Dog," "Peeping Tom," "Hearts and Minds," and several other challenging titles. My only gripe with Criterion concerns the cost of their DVDs, which often seem quite high even for such great movies."The Night Porter" is about a night porter working in a fancy hotel in Vienna, Austria twelve years after the end of World War II. If the movie merely touched on the surface aspects involving night portering, it would be a dull affair indeed. How to make a film delving into the multifaceted fascinations of checking in luggage, or taking phone calls from irate customers? No, "The Night Porter" has little to do with the hotel industry and much to do with a hideous relationship between two tortured souls. The night porter at this particular hotel, Max Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde), was once an SS officer assigned to a concentration camp where he tortured and killed inmates. Post war investigations into war atrocities has Max and his fellow Nazi henchmen on edge; they meet often to discuss their efforts to suppress evidence and other ways to cover their tracks. Max is ambivalent about these meetings, and becomes even more so after a chance meeting with a woman he had a very special relationship with in the camp. This woman, Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling), initially expresses horror at seeing her former lover/tormentor in the flesh after all these years, but then something grim and repellent happens. The sick spark that united victim and oppressor all those years ago blossoms anew. Lucia feigns a lame excuse to her husband about staying behind so she can indulge her desires for Max. And this is only the beginning of the trouble.Max's friends express great alarm about this relationship. They see Lucia's presence as a significant danger to their yearning for anonymity, and they want Max to jettison the love affair and come over to their way of thinking. Max suspects spending time with Atherton presents a danger to him, but he cannot bear the idea of giving her up again. He secrets her away in his apartment in an effort to hide the relationship from his companions, who warn Max that keeping this woman in bondage will force them to take drastic measures to insure their secrecy. The former Nazi's go so far as to monitor Max's apartment twenty four hours a day, taking pot shots at him whenever he sticks his head outside for even a minute. When Max and Lucia run out of food and drink, they make a terrible decision about their future that will have permanent, unpleasant results for the pair. It would be easy to write off "The Night Porter" as an exploitation film, a movie in the same vein as Tinto Brass's "Salon Kitty" or "Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS," two films which borrow themes from National Socialist Germany to make a cheap statement about the nightmare of the holocaust. "The Night Porter" does contain many disturbing images that could rate as exploitation fare: the flashbacks to the concentration camp where Max and Lucia first meet immediately comes to mind, as does the little dance number Lucia performs for her lover and a room full of SS officers. Having said that, I really don't feel this movie is exploitative. There is something more going on here than mere sensationalism, perhaps a statement about the nature of power and how it pertains to love during a horrific event. I would need to watch the film again to examine Lucia's desire for Max, but for the former SS officer I think the need to relive a time when he was a man with position and power is the main reason he rekindles this doomed relationship. Here's a guy who held the power of life and death over thousands of people, and now he works as a lowly hotel clerk. Why wouldn't he want to taste again the rush of power he gets when he dominates Lucia in his apartment? Sure, it is sick, but people do inexplicable things in relationships all the time that are just as disturbing.A quick note on the performances: Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde both excel in their respective roles. Rampling especially is always easy on the eyes and has a wonderfully expressive face capable of transmitting complex emotions to the audience without uttering a word. If for no other reason, you should watch this film just to see these two actors turn in amazing performances. Married with a marvelous picture transfer, sumptuous set pieces, gloomy atmosphere, and a great script, "The Night Porter" is a one of a kind film that is sure to make an impression. Thanks again, Criterion, for releasing yet another brilliant cinematic oddity."
A few words to add to J. Leach's excellent review
Tracy Hodson | Middle of Nowhere, OR United States | 08/15/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Jeffrey Leach has written an extraordinarily insightful review of "The Night Porter," and I just want to add a few lines, as otherwise I'd just be repeating him. I recommend that anyone trying to understand this film read his review for help with the extremely difficult territory it explores.
For those who find the film to be exploitive or perverse (in an unrealistic way), please remember that we now know, as a result of so much information gathered regarding the sexuality of children who were abused during their formative years, that if a girl, young and inexperienced as Rampling's Lucia was when she was in the concentration camp, finds the right combination of emotional tenderness (as in Max's kissing of her wounded arm) and sexual stimulation/initiation, these experiences become so deeply imprinted as to be easily re-awakened in adulthood. After the intensity of such experiences, "normal" sexuality can seem dead and flat, not at all a match for the earlier times of dis-inhibtion. While this may be difficult and even offensive for those who have no similar touchstone of experience, psychologically it is accurate--frighteningly so--and "The Night Porter" shows us just how far it can go. When Lucia puts on the little girl's dress she's purchased, the image is jarring but sums up the truth of her stunted psychological and sexual development. We end up wondering whether she ever had a passionate moment with her oh-so-normal husband. With the experiences of the camp having been the most intense and indelible of her life, how could she not seek to re-create them? And how could Max, who despite his sadistic acts seems to have genuinely fallen in love with "his little girl," not fall backwards himself into the time when they were locked together in the deepest relationship of all--two people may never be closer than victim and torturer, completely dependent upon one another for the only human contact either has. Hence we see the Stockholm Syndrome constantly repeated, abused girls become abused women, etc. As Lucia says to a former Nazi doctor who comes to Max's apt. to check on the situation, "There is no cure." Whether one agrees or not, whether it is true for everyone or not, it is accepted as true by these two, and all their actions spring from this perception.
Liliana Cavani's precise and compassionate direction gives her characters the safety they needed (Rampling is astoundingly courageous in her no-holds-barred performance--most actresses would have run screaming from this role), and Bogarde is memorable as this strange combination of father/lover. Together the three create this dark and disturbing but deeply human story of damaged people who somehow find a way to live fully for a brief time before their end.
One last note: I agree with Mr. Leach that Criterion can be too expensive, but at least they give us what no one else will touch. "
Not likely to pop up late night on TBS.
D. Hartley | Seattle, WA USA | 05/16/2001
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Despite the misleading cover photo, this is not another stab at exploitive and kitschy WW2 sick humor a la "Ilsa:She-Wolf of the SS", but a far more ambitious and artful work of cinema. Disturbing and repulsive, yet quite compelling, "The Night Porter" brilliantly uses a depiction of sado-masochism and pycho-sexual politics as an effective allusion to the horror of Hitler's Germany. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are both broodingly decadent as a former SS officer and concentration camp survivor, respectively, who end up in a twisted, doomed relationship years after the war. You would have to search high and low to find two braver performances than Bogarde and Rampling give in this complex story (Harvey Keitel and Holly Hunter in "The Piano" comes the closest). Like the film "Seven Beauties", the "sex" you think you're watching is really a subliminal lesson on the ugly politics of facism and oppression. Obviously, this is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but recommended for any cinema buff up for a challenge."
A Long, Slow Danse Macabre
dekkard8 | outside the circle | 01/20/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"One of the great cult films of the early 70's, The Night Porter can be viewed as a treatise on the decadence of the Nazi regime or an exploration of the lingering ties between abuser and abused. Gruesome and surreal in some scenes, passionate and haunting in others, it is definitely one you will never forget. The cabaret scene and the final image of the two doomed companions walking along still haunts me today. If you are looking for a great cult movie or just something different, well now you've found it!"
Strange, compelling, impossible to forget.
D. Hartley | 02/18/1999
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I saw this movie in the summer of 1973 and now, 26 years later, I still remember it. Disturbing, with strong sexuality and some violence, it made me think about the ties that bind abusers and victims. The glass-eating scene, and the scene in the cabaret (with the severed head) were, at the same time, shocking and impossible to turn away from. This movie is, by turns, slow, shocking, and sad, but it is by no means boring. A good choice if you want to investigate the outer edge of the human psyche."