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The Night Porter (1974)

Dir: Liliana Cavani


Vienna 1957;
Max Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde) is a strict, cold man who does not suffer fools gladly. He works as a night porter at a plush hotel where he does his job well even if he seems to take great dislike at being ordered around.
One day though Lucia Atherton comes to the hotel with her famous conductor Husband and instantly recognises Max, just as he recognises her, because Max was Nazi medical officer at the concentration camp for political undesirables where Lucia was sent during the war. And in this hellish place she became Max’s willing plaything as he acted out his darkest, sadean, pleasures.
So now, years later, it is not hate and anger that fills Lucia at this shock re-acquaintance…It is desire.

Max is not the only ex-Nazi in the city though.
A small group of them hold secret meetings to check up on how safe from detection they are and Max is the one currently being assessed by Klaus (Philippe Leroy, “Mannaja“) to ensure there are no witnesses against him, or anything that could hurt the security of the group.
Any evidence found on the members is presented as if in a trial designed to find any signs of guilt or fear and purge it from them.
The evidence is then destroyed and any known witnesses tracked down and murdered if they show any signs of remembrance or retribution.
For many of the Nazi’s this process is to be certain that they can return to public life and even their old status. For Max though it is simply so he can stay safely in the shadows.

But Max, despite his initial fear, is as drawn to Lucia as she is to him (as their twisted need and sadomasochistic desire for each other overcomes all else) and they start a passionate affair when Lucia’s Husband leaves for a few days.
But the other Nazis have eyes and ears everywhere and soon Max and this strange new woman are under close, and possibly lethal, scrutiny…

 

 

Welcome to the true wellspring of the most controversial and generally hated sub-genre in all of Exploitation cinema’s vast universe; Naziploitation.


Although the idea of WW2 concentration camp detainees and their Nazi captors being used for exploitative sexual ‘thrills’ was first spat out at the screen in the form of Lee Frost’s, Wes Bishop’s and Bob Cresse’s infamous ‘Nasty’ “Love Camp 7” in 1969, that film actually played like a ‘Women in Prison’ Sexploitation flick more than anything else.
Aside from a few cheap looking uniforms with swastikas on there was nothing really Nazi about these very American sounding guards and, despite the unapologetically exploitative attitude to women and much forced nudity (that still offends the British censor so much that the film is still banned), there was a solid aspect of intentional camp humour to the entire thing.
It was certainly not erotic, fetishist, violently nasty or decadent.

In the same year Visconti’s excellent “The Damned” (also starring Bogarde with Rampling in a support role) offered up our first real mix of eroticism and sumptuous decadence with the fetishistic power of the Nazi image as massive, bright red and black, swastikas hung down from walls and a young, androgynous, achingly erotic Helmut Berger paraded around in his ‘Death’s Head’ emblazoned uniform.
But Visconti’s film was a serious dramatic work and importantly set pre-war so as such none of the other essential trappings of the Naziploitation genre were present.

Then, a surprisingly long 5 years later, Liliana Cavani gave us “The Night Porter”.
Here for the first time the controversial elements of out and out Nazi imagery and ideology mixed with the sight of naked men and women huddled into a dank concentration camp at the sadistic mercy of their all powerful captors was unleashed upon the worldwide cinema audience. And it all came with the coating of art house credibility.
Although critical reception was mixed the sheer coverage the film got worldwide, its taboo subject matter and (now) iconic imagery were strong enough to finally usher in the much vilified Naziploitation period in Exploitation cinema.

But is “The Night Porter” itself exploitative?
True there are much deeper waters here for the audience to wade through (and finer acting to embrace by its two leads) then you will ever find in any of the films that would follow it, including Tinto Brass’s gorgeously twisted and utterly sumptuous “Salon Kitty”, the next most important (along with “Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS” that came a year after “Porter”) entry into the cycle, but there is still a definite exploitative aspect to the concentration camp flashbacks and indeed certain background details (like the sight of a guard sodomising another man as the camera pans across the screen) to the main events are purely there to add shock and sleaze.
So for all its art house trappings, philosophical musings and moments of deftly acted deep character study it is in fact the glue of out and out exploitation that ultimately holds the film together.

Rampling (whose career is generally solid but became perhaps best known for being the wife/ex-wife of French electro composer Jean Michel Jarre) is excellent as Lucia and plays both her present and past self to stylised perfection, and her famously thin figure fits perfectly with the hellish life in the concentration camp that she is meant to be representing, even as she enjoys the rough attentions of one of her elite jailors.

The excellent and versatile Bogarde is given a fascinating character to essay, even though we have to dig around into his psyche ourselves a lot of the time as the screenplay by Cavani (with story by Barbara Alberti, Amedeo Pagani and Italo Moscati) does not offer us enough of the man upfront.
Max’s sexuality is very sketchy for example but of much interest.
In our first sexually charged scene with him he’s waking up the hotel’s Bellboy stud to go and pleasure one of the long term residents, an aging ‘Countess’ (Isa Miranda), and although Max shows general disdain and even disgust towards the young man (who provides our first bit of nudity) he later takes the time to zip his fly up in the elevator and even though he shrugs off the smug “Thanks” he receives you have to wonder why he felt the need to do it.
This possible bit of restrained, perhaps self-loathing (given his Nazi status) Bisexuality (as he certainly fancies women, at least Lucia) is further highlighted when one of his fellow Nazis, Bert (Amedeo Amodio, a ballet dancing Nazi no less!) makes direct approaches to him that Max recoils from only after a noticeable pause.


Bogarde (who in real life was one of the first concentration camp liberators during WW2) handles this dialogue light scenes wonderfully and indeed he was one of the first actors since the end of silent cinema to go back to using just his face to put over his character’s thoughts, feelings and reactions to the plot mechanics. Indeed perhaps no one was better than him at revealing his character’s inner workings with just the use of subtle expressions. The camera can linger on a thoughtful Bogarde in complete silence and yet the audience is bombarded with a thousand words.
As expected he handles the character work and dialogue interactions perfectly but more surprisingly (given his acting start in sedate 50’s/60’s English cinema) he’s also very good during the dialogue free Nazi flashbacks when cruelty, sadism and underlying madness is called for. There is truly something disturbing in the way he first spots the stripped Lucia and literally homes in on her with his camera (as he documents the camp’s arrivals) forcing the lens into her face with barely restrained sadism and lust.

As for the rest of the cast (all dubbed over into English) no one really stands out except for Amedeo Amodio and his homoerotic ballet dancing flashback (although unintentionally camp perhaps and rather surreal - more on that later ) is not only wonderfully shot, edited and indeed danced (dressed in nothing but a small loin cloth) but is one of the films most memorably melancholy moments. There is something far gentler and passionately artistic in Bert than his ultimate fate as a Nazi fanatic would lead us to belive, but he has ultimately allowed it to be drowned by brutish fascism.

Philippe Leroy’s Klause should have been another strong character, but his (at least now) rather comical appearance (complete with monocle, ever present hat and leather coat) makes him look like the winner of the ‘Best Gestapo Fancy Dress’ competition than a serious character.
I guess the war just never ends for these guys! But perhaps that is the point?

Talk of the aforementioned ballet sequence of course brings in the film’s set-pieces. All the Nazi flashbacks are well constructed and deliver much nudity and sexuality. But their real power is how they are edited into the story.
The most infamous sequence is when (as the aforementioned sodomy takes place next to them) Max slowly thrusts his fingers into Lucia’s mouth, in a grotesque representation of filatio, as she lies on a cot bed with the other mute inmates looking on with dead-eyed stares.
But this crudely erotic scene is given its true power in the way it is edited into a modern day opera performance (Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”) that both Lucia and Max are attending. As Max watches Lucia a few rows in front and Lucia carefully steals glances at him the flip from the most civilised of settings to the squalor of the camp, as their mutual degradation is offered up to us (all scored to Mozart’s music), creates a stunning sequence.

The aforementioned ballet sequence setting and the setting of an earlier scene where Max fires his gun near the naked, cowering, fearful but obviously passion drenched Lucia, also highlights the surrealism of these flashback scenes.
The location for this camp seems to be an utterly dilapidated factory with little if any signs of practical infrastructure or inhabitability and the way the Nazis are posed, often unmoving, as they watch the dancing, or (later on) watch Lucia singing, makes them look like mannequins.
All this adds to a feeling of the unreal (along with some obvious grey/silver make-up on Max and Lucia in some scenes) as if what we are seeing is literally a fantasy variant on what really happened.
Perhaps this is intentional, or simply the fact that this type of explicit sexploitation mixed with decadent Nazi fetishism is something new and Cavani is perhaps getting carried away with her fetish chic at the expense of naturalism.
Whatever the reasons for the eventual creations both the chic overload and fantasy reconstruction theories work and for devotes of Nazi fetishism (and exploitation in general) all these set-ups provide a powerful jolt.

About an hour in sadly the film falls completely asleep for about 15 minutes and does absolutely nothing (really, you can go and make a nice cup of tea now) until a superbly twisted return to the concentration camp seems to re-ignite the film as it then goes into a fascinating scene where we learn more about the mysterious Countess and how close Max truly is with her, as she becomes not only his confessor, but also the off-limits world outside that he wants to shout his desire and love for Lucia out to.
This then leads then to the film’s most iconic, sequence where a topless Lucia sings a German song, partly in Nazi uniform, to a bunch of SS officers (some in strange masks) in a smoky improvised looking bar.
Rampling does a superb job here and makes for a striking sight and it is no wonder the image of her became basically the only image used to promote the film everywhere in the world.
It was also the image that basically kickstarted the whole, seperate from cinema, Nazi fetish scene that is still prevalent today.
But it’s a sequence with a narrative point and which climaxes with a scene that shows us not just how sadistic and ruthless Max truly is, but also how much the seemingly now more privileged and arrogant Lucia has to learn about how far he can go.

From this song sequence the film now enters its final movement and the one that really splits viewers on whether the film is tedious pretension or a serious psychological journey.
So tied to each other in their twisted desire and need for one another Max and Lucia now become consenting prisoners in their own apartment prison.
Soon the fear of being parted turns into a complete mental breakdown of any reason as they go through a sordid, pitiful existence in the room they dare not leave. Food, water, even fresh air all become depleted and soon they only have each others desires to feed on and a twisted, uncontrollable need which is all they have in the entire world.
Certainly now the film’s already skeletal plot stops dead as far as the narrative goes, the situation is almost surrealistic in its set-up and lacks any real logical sense in how it plays out and the Nazi scenes vanish.

But this sequence also contains some stunning acting by Rampling and Bogarde and an extremely erotic, desperate, sex scene that truly hammers home just how utterly obsessed these two characters are with each other despite their dire situation.
S ome of this is overly pretentious for sure, but for the most part it does work as that psychological study as long as you accept such a studious endeavour being tackled in an utterly fantastical, surrealistic fashion.

As for the main thrust of the plot, that of a camp victim desiring her captor, it makes for a blisteringly taboo subject matter and surely one to offend most people. But taboo has never been bad for box office let’s admit it.
The film was indeed accused of exploiting The Holocaust, disrespecting the victims of The Holocaust and trivialising the suffering of those who went through it.
Although perhaps this stance is partly attributed (seeing as they were by far the main Nazi victims and the racial symbol of the entire plan) to a frequent mistake people make in assuming Lucia is Jewish, when she is in fact simply the daughter of a socialist.
Indeed, given the dialogue heard briefly as the detainees are logged in, none of the prisoners seem to be Jewish as when asked their religion the two we hear answer say “Catholic” and “Lutheran”.

But this controversial setting for the film’s basic premise is ultimately separate from the characters. Lucia is a damaged person into submissive sex, Max is a controlling sexual sadist and both would be like this anyway. War, Nazis and concentration camps or not.
That they happen to meet during a period in history, and at a certain type of facility, that is the worst hell for everyone else but quite frankly utterly perfect for their own needs, is simply coincidental.
True, it’s one hell of a powerful and in your face coincidence but that does not change the fact it is one. The film is a study in warped need and crushing desire that tears two people apart before it’s any kind of serious look at Nazism.
The Nazi set-up and the character’s place in it just provide the perfect master and slave back-drop (and indeed tools) for their lust to be nurtured.

All in all then “The Night Porter” is a film that some will instantly hate for even existing, some will hate once they get half way through as they gaze at the clock, while others will pick through the film’s pacing faults and less than successful ex-Nazi characters to discover a groundbreaking mix of art house extremity, serious psychological study and out and out exploitation filled with powerful moments, masterful cinematography, iconic images and a truly notorious cinematic legacy.