Directed and written by Liliana Cavani, the controversial film “The Night Porter,” “Il Portiere di Notte”, was released in 1974. The film features Dirk Bogarde, as Max, a discreet, unassuming night porter in an exclusive Viennese hôtel and Charlotte Rampling, Lucia, as the figure from his past, who continues to haunt Max.
The year is 1957. Max tends to the hôtel guest’s needs; everything to providing a glass of cold water, to a bed-warming gigolo. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that during the dark years of World War II, Max was an S.S. officer at a Nazi concentration camp where Lucia was a beautiful, young prisoner. Lucia, became Max's sexual slave, a position that she apparently relished.
The moment where the two recognise each other in the lobby of the hôtel is compelling. Both remember. The flashbacks tell of the chilling photographs Max took of Lucia, while pretending to be a physician. Through the flashbacks appropriate to Lucia, the viewer learns of episodes of rape, sodomy, and torture. Lucia is afraid. The viewer soon realises that it is not Max that she is afraid of, but the primal, carnal power of their relationship.
Max was not simply Lucia’s tormentor. He was her protector. It is a scenario which we see rewritten in our own contemporary erotica. “The Night Porter” is a pertinent template for any “Daddy’s Little Girl”, tale; it whispers and awakens forbidden fantasies. It allows us the space to relish the darker side of desire.
Charlotte Rampling, for her part, insisted that she knew nothing about sadomasochism before embarking on the film. 'The girl had to be an innocent, both fearful, and tempted by the mysteries of unknown pleasures,' she said.
If the scene in the hôtel lobby is compelling, the scene at the opera is electric. Max is seated a few rows behind Lucia and her husband. A sensation causes Lucia to turn. She meets Max’s eyes. She turns away, then turns again. He is still there, willing her to hold his gaze. She turns away, then looks again. Max is gone.
Lucia stays in Vienna after her husband travels on. She wants to see Max, and they find themselves caught up in a renewal of their former sadomasochistic relationship. But Max is to be tried for his war crimes. His former S.S. comrades have been carefully destroying documents and "filing away" witnesses to clear all their names, and while Max tries to keep Lucia's existence a secret from them, they eventually find out about her. They consider her a threat, and they urge Max to turn her over to them. He quits his job, and he and Lucia hide out in his apartment, while his former friends keep watch, waiting for the opportunity to strike.
Filmmaker Liliana Cavani visited a Nazi concentration camp after WW II and interviewed a woman who had been involved in a sadomasochistic relationship with a guard. She then made her story the basis for this powerfully, compelling film.
Liliana Cavani certainly gives her audience a strange and unforgettable picture that questions deeply the psyches of torturers and the tortured, “The Night Porter” presents its psychoanalytically provocative material without exploitation. On another level it deals with the psychological condition known as Stockholm Syndrome
where the victim develops an empathy with his or her abuser.
In an iconic scene, Lucia sings a Marlene Dietrich song to the concentration camp guards while wearing pieces of an SS uniform, and Max "rewards" her with the severed head of a male inmate who had been bullying the other inmates. Max has previously described his relationship with Lucia as “Biblical,” but he cannot remember the story in the Bible that draws him. Then he remembers. It is the story of Salome. King Herod presents Salome with the severed head of John the Baptist as a reward for her display of erotic dance.
In responses to “The Night Porter”, Liliana Cavani was both celebrated for her courage in dealing with the theme of sexual transgression and, simultaneously, castigated for the controversial manner in which she presented that transgression: within the context of a Nazi Holocaust narrative. The film has been accused of mere sensationalism: film critic Roger Ebert calls it "as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering.” Given the film's dark and disturbing themes and a somewhat ambiguous moral clarification at the end, “The Night Porter”, has tended to divide audiences. It is, however, the film for which Liliana Cavani is best known.
I was transfixed by Liliana Cavani’s film when I first saw it, many years ago. I was transfixed again when I watched it yesterday. “The Night Porter” tells of terrible things, and the Holocaust tells a tale of the worst that human beings can ever be. Would Max and Lucia have entered into this distorted, warped love affair -- and it is most certainly, definitely a true love affair, without the Holocaust? Well, of course we don’t know. Would our world today be the same had the Holocaust never happened? Again, we don’t know. The Holocaust is our shame as human beings. We need to be reminded, we need the mirror to be held up to our dirty faces, and if this can be only achieved through a film such as “The Night Porter,” well that’s fine with me.
“The bulk of the Nazi war crime trials took place right after 1945. Basically, from 1945 to 1949, there were parallel Allied tribunals and German courts. The German courts largely dealt with crimes committed against German citizens; the Allied courts dealt with all others, which meant the majority of Nazi crimes. These proceedings petered out by the end of the 1940s and early 1950s largely because West German society suppressed the past and preferred not to talk about it. Nazi crimes hardly found mention in public discourse in the early 1950s.
There is a video of Lucia’s dance available at Youtube, but they won’t let me embed it. Here’s the link.