The Night Porter

Tuesday, 11 April 2006

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 247 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.