The Night Porter

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #59: Lil­iana Cavani’s The Night Porter.
There is a pic­ture of a naked woman at the end of this review. If you or your work­place has a prob­lem with that, you should prob­a­bly not read this or wait until you get home.

The Night Porter is a film about a sado­masochis­tic rela­tion­ship between an SS offi­cer and a con­cen­tra­tion camp pris­on­er. The film takes place in 1957, but nei­ther Max [Dirk Bog­a­rde] or Lucia [Char­lotte Ram­pling] have moved on from their old lives as Nazi and pris­on­er, respec­tive­ly.

Max is the night porter at a Vien­nese hotel, still proud of his Nazi past, per­haps sub­con­scious­ly wracked by guilt, and now forced to “wipe people’s ass­es;” a tak­er of orders, not a giv­er of them. Lucia, emo­tion­al­ly needy and by a twist of fate, is stay­ing at the hotel with her con­duc­tor hus­band. They run into each oth­er and, out of fear and obses­sion, stalk each oth­er until the hus­band leaves town. Then Max slaps her around a bit and they have a rip-roar­ing good shag.

This couldn’t have hap­pened at a worse time for Max, he and his SS com­pa­tri­ots are per­form­ing some sort of psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic mock tri­als on each oth­er, in attempts to assuage [or ful­ly repress] any guilt they feel for their actions dur­ing the war. After each per­son has had their tri­al, any wit­ness­es that remain alive are “filed away” and all paper trails com­plete­ly destroyed. These men still feel that the Nazi dream can be ful­filled, and they know there is still at least one woman alive who knows about Max. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Max is in love with her, and the feel­ing is returned.

The Nazis lay siege to Max & Lucia, by keep­ing a 24/7 watch on his apart­ment. If either of them leave, they will be killed. They’re okay with this at first, Max chains Lucia up so “they can’t take her away” and they play their pow­er and pain games with each oth­er. When they are almost out of food, Lucia starts gob­bling jam, they wres­tle over it and then have a rip-roar­ing good shag. Then, after their pow­er is cut, they escape by night and are still assas­si­nat­ed.

The film is osten­si­bly about pow­er dynam­ics, espe­cial­ly cap­ture-bond­ing, a mech­a­nism relat­ed to Stock­holm syn­drome. While it was con­tro­ver­sial at the time, for its por­tray­al of con­cen­tra­tion camp cul­ture and debase­ment, this set­ting, and the sub­se­quent Vien­nese after­math, are well suit­ed to weav­ing togeth­er the inter­ests of com­pet­ing groups.

The bond that binds Max & Lucia is one that is still very mis­un­der­stood and taboo. Max always has the pow­er, but some­times he sub­mits to Lucia, his cap­tive, after he has trained her. She also fights back on her own, but only in order to up the ante, to see how far they can push them­selves into cru­el­ty. If you can call it cru­el­ty, since they both love it. Sim­i­lar­ly, the Nazis seek to con­trol every pos­si­ble loose end of their lives, to erad­i­cate any threat to pre­serve them­selves. Through­out, I get the sense that all of the play­ers are under the con­trol of their desire for pow­er, instead of con­trol­ling the pow­er of their desires. There are like­ly quite a few ref­er­ences that I missed, such as the applic­a­bil­i­ty of Mozart’s The Mag­ic Flute [with which I have only pass­ing famil­iar­i­ty] and the Ger­man song that Lucia sings for the SS offi­cers in the cabaret.

Over­all, I thought this was a superb film, with excel­lent act­ing and extreme­ly poignant dia­logue [at times]. The cam­era work was inter­est­ing, as lots of shots hug the frame or seem like the cam­era could be tracked out just a bit. There are long reveals and lin­ger­ing shots that cre­ate a strong sense of impend­ing cat­a­stro­phe. This one is worth a watch, if you aren’t too prude.
Cri­te­ri­on Essay by Annette Ins­dorf
Images Jour­nal review by Shane M. Dall­man
The Cri­te­ri­on Contraption’s review.