The Night Porter is one of the most bizarre psychodramas in the history of film, using the Holocaust as a dreamy, abstract backdrop for a toxic romance between a former SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) and the “little girl” (Charlotte Rampling) he isolated, humiliated, and raped in a Nazi concentration camp. If that sounds absolutely outrageous, that was surely part of the design. This wasn’t Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS or another in the short-lived cycle of Nazi-themed exploitation pictures. This was Italian director Liliana Cavani’s first English-language feature, and Bogarde and Rampling were English-language stars. In order to recoup, The Night Porter would need to be provocative. Cavani delivered on that score. European critics are said to have taken the movie’s sociopolitical context seriously, but upon arrival in New York its outré imagery generated a mix of critical scorn and mockery that, ironically, helped earn it big returns at the box office. (Vincent Canby’s pan deriding it as “romantic pornography” was highlighted in the advertising.) If you know nothing else about the film, you probably know its signature image–Rampling, wearing black leather gloves and an SS officer’s cap, her bare breasts framed by the suspenders holding up a pair of baggy pinstriped trousers, tossing a Mona Lisa smile at the camera. That key art has kept The Night Porter in demand for more than forty years now, from arthouses and VHS tapes to DVD and now Blu-ray releases under the Criterion imprimatur.
Cavani may have leveraged the easily-sensationalized imagery to make her name as an auteur (no film of hers would ever again approach this level of notoriety worldwide), yet her motivations don’t seem to have been cynical, nor her interest in Nazi iconography opportunistic. During World War II, she was a child in a family full of Italian anti-fascists. Frustrated by her country’s failure to come to terms with Nazism and Fascism following the war, she came to the cinema by way of Italian television, for which she made a series of documentaries, among them a history of the Third Reich and an oral account of women of the Italian resistance. After directing a few features that included politically and philosophically charged biopics of Francis of Assisi, Galileo, and Milarepa, she took on The Night Porter, in part as a way to criticize the reluctance of contemporary European society to reckon with the ghosts of its recent past.
Set in Vienna in 1957, the picture begins as Lucia Atherton, now the wife of a famous orchestra conductor on a European tour, recognizes Maximilian Theo Aldorfer, the night clerk at a Viennese hotel, from his post at the Nazi camp where she was a prisoner more than a decade before. Having adopted a new identity, Max moves in a shadowy social circle that includes an aging ballet dancer who performs for him in a darkened room at the hotel in exchange for drugs; a woman he calls the Countess, for whom he procures male companionship; and a group of his old Nazi pals, who stage mock war trials aimed at identifying any legal jeopardy they may face. Although Lucia is clearly disturbed by the encounter, her husband is insensitive to her distress. For whatever reason, she lingers at the hotel, even when he travels to his next performance. As she deals with what are revealed to be complicated feelings of fear, guilt, and arousal, The Night Porter drops freely in and out of flashbacks that show how Max built his relationship with young Lucia.
Cavani treats this difficult material as a kind of unravelling mystery. In scenes set at the camp, Max is revealed to have been a two-bit Mengele type who stalked new arrivals at the camp with a movie camera. In a scene that invites voyeuristic comparison of her slim body to those of the older, pudgier inmates surrounding her, he singles Lucia out for his campaign of terror–which, as we will see, intermingles threats against her life with sexual coercion. In one scene, Max fires a pistol as Lucia cowers, naked and fearful, against a wall. In another, she’s flying through the air on a carnival ride, a strangely serene expression on her face, as gunshots and screaming can be heard on the soundtrack. It all offers horrific context for the contemporary scenes of Lucia at the hotel, where her trauma seems to be re-emerging after years in remission. The interplay between past and present reaches something of an apotheosis in a sequence that uses a performance of The Night Porter conducted by Lucia’s husband as the soundtrack to her rape. After that, the centerpiece spectacle of Lucia performing topless for the SS officers in an ersatz The Blue Angel-style cabaret comes almost as a relief, given that it’s delivered in a self-consciously elaborate style that suggests a playful self-awareness, even as it constructs an erotic nightmare. But the scene has an unsettling exclamation point that shuts the door on the idea that Lucia was complicit or happy in her exploitation, or had fully succumbed to Stockholm syndrome.
There’s a visual poetry and an emotional logic to the way the film moves between Max and Lucia’s present day and their shared time at the camp. Cavani often isolates her characters at one side of the screen or the other (cinematographer Alfio Contini is adept at making them emerge from complete shadow as apparitions in the dark), using the emptiness of the frame to emphasize their alienation. And inasmuch as the mix of distaste and yearning felt by Lucia is explicable, Rampling ably conveys it. A shot of her drinking alone at a bar is suffused with amber hues and keeps her lowball glass in sharp focus, leaving her face fuzzy in the background, where ample negative space conveys her detached, woozy emotional state. Bogarde, meanwhile, walks a fine line, playing his title character as an apparently rare bird in post-war Austria: an introspective, soul-searching Nazi. He manages the trick of coming across as decidedly human, especially in comparison to his cartoonish war colleagues (one of whom actually sports a scar and monocle to go along with his eternally furrowed brow), without seeming particularly sympathetic beyond the fact of said humanity. Bogarde knew that would be enough. Cavani allows him to put a little distance between his character and the other Nazis in a rooftop scene where one of the other men declares that he regrets nothing about his cruel SS career. Max impulsively throws up a Nazi salute, watches the other men snap to with a hearty “Sieg heil!”, then abruptly turns his back on them with a tiny, perfectly-played shrug and smirk. It’s almost enough to make you root for him.
By this time, Max is going home to Lucia, who has abandoned her husband and willingly shacked up with Max in a consensual replay of their wartime relationship. Cavani’s elaborate psychological tableaux give way to a low-rent post-war thriller with Max’s Nazi friends, murderous once again, staking out his flat and Max, a man in love, vowing to protect Lucia–the last remaining witness to his depravity–from them. They take potshots at him when he ventures onto the balcony, and they keep the grocery delivery boy from going upstairs. Max and Lucia embrace isolation, their lust and hunger now mirroring their time in the concentration camp. This section of the picture is dreary and dramatically inert, and it only highlights the contrivance that led these characters to their sad state. Trading loaded but galvanizing Holocaust imagery for more naturalistic sexual shenanigans in the mode of her countryman Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, Cavani gravitates towards a glum nihilism that sends the whole affair into torpor.
Bertolucci, of course, had already taken a swipe at the sexual psychology of fascism in The Conformist, to which The Night Porter compares poorly. It’s not that Cavani’s foregrounding of fascist imagery is necessarily exploitative–in fact, the film’s measured, melancholy tone combines with its Nazi trappings to generate a mood that’s mostly unmatched elsewhere in cinema, thus explaining its enduring popularity. It plays like a sober but electrified mourning ritual in honour of the lost soul of Europe. And Cavani is undoubtedly serious about these characters. The Night Porter opens an angle on the subject of rape and abuse that feels worth exploring from a woman’s point of view; Lucia is sensitively portrayed as accepting of (if not complicit in) her own subjugation in a way that’s uncomfortable, partly because it calls attention to the complexity of sexual trauma.
However, The Night Porter is thin on that front. The film privileges Max’s experience over Lucia’s, telling the story from his perspective rather than hers, which compromises any feminist reading. More to the point, if you strip away the unsavoury association with the Holocaust, you’re left with Max as an ordinary pervert and predator (in an aside, we’re shown that Lucia wasn’t Max’s only target) and Lucia as a victim of patriarchal norms as opposed to fascist ideology, and the fundamental power dynamic between the two remains the same; the concentration-camp setting turns out to have remarkably little bearing on the relationship’s eventual destination. Just a year later, Pasolini would complete Salò, a truly harrowing Holocaust allegory that spotlights the systematic degradation of nude bodies in a manner that negates titillation, instead inspiring horror, revulsion, and outright despair. It goes far enough past pornography to become anti-pornography–by the time it’s over, you wonder if you’ll ever be sexually aroused again. What Salò says about The Night Porter is that if the latter film is an unconvincing critique of latent fascism in European society, it’s not because Cavani’s injection of eroticism in the prison camps goes too far, but because it doesn’t go far enough.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion has had a thing for The Night Porter since 1997, when it first released the title on LaserDisc. Some 17 years later, the film doubtless looks better than ever on Blu-ray, thanks to a new transfer based on a recent 2K scan of the camera negative and an interpositive by Technicolor in Rome. The difference between the negative and the IP isn’t readily apparent. Texture is consistent throughout–a thin layer of grain rests atop a handsome 35mm image. It’s pretty clean overall, but isn’t meticulously dust-busted, showing visible speckling in some shots. The only distraction really worth noting is the thick black hair that hooks into the frame in a key scene where Max first visits Lucia in the hotel. Presumably, automated de-noising would have been detrimental to the grain texture and manual frame-by-frame clean-up would have been prohibitively costly (it’s on screen for more than four long minutes!). As you’d expect from Criterion, sharpening is not an issue, and any noise-reduction techniques were applied effectively and unobtrusively. The more controversial aspect of this presentation is bound to be the digital colour timing, “supervised by director Liliana Cavani” and therefore correct by fiat. I suspect the patina of sickly green that overspreads every shot in the prison camp is exaggerated here compared to original theatrical prints (certainly it’s a departure from Criterion’s DVD from 2000), but the clearly-defined look of those flashbacks appears to be Cavani’s preference. Meanwhile, the hotel’s muted colour scheme sticks to the cool side, comprising mainly earthier greens, browns, and bluish greys, and the wan palette of Max’s flat gravitates towards a paler green that recalls the camp’s life-sapping environment. Colour-wise, it’s a fine, thoughtfully-executed transfer.
The uncompressed monaural audio seems to offer a mostly faithful representation of the original 35mm magnetic source, with decent dynamic range and little to no distortion during high-volume passages. Consistency varies somewhat, with some scenes having a smooth but slightly muffled sound quality and others having a pleasing brightness that can verge on harsh at the high end of the dynamics. Those differences may reflect limitations of the original recordings, the context-sensitive digital strategies that cleaned them up, or a combination of both.
Cavani herself comes off as a fearless bad-ass in a new nine-minute interview, in which she discusses the film’s casting and performances, disses “the famous” Vittorio Storaro in favour of her own DP, and even makes a weird remark about the size of Rampling’s breasts. Finally, she expresses regret that The Night Porter came to be defined in the popular mind solely by its sex scenes. “I’d say that Expressionism was the artistic style I referred to the most,” she muses. “It was the kind of art that Hitler hated.” And then there’s her old documentary “Women of the Resistance,” featured here in its 50-minute entirety (the file is encoded in 1080p at 24fps, though it looks like it was blown-up from a standard-definition source). Cavani describes it in a five-minute introduction as “the only documentary about the presence of women in the Italian resistance” during Germany’s invasion. She remembers speaking to a woman who spent time in Dachau during the war and, every year since, had returned to Dachau for one week during her vacation. As Cavani told The New York Times upon The Night Porter’s original release, “I asked her why she didn’t go to Hawaii or some place else instead. She couldn’t explain. It was the victim returning to the scene of the crime.” Relevant.
Lastly, Criterion has for some reason opted for an eight-panel fold-out, rather than the more common booklet, as an insert. When unfolded, one side features an appreciative essay by Gaetana Marrone, a Princeton professor and the author of The Gaze and the Labyrinth: The Cinema of Liliana Cavani; the other contains an excerpt from a typically candid 1975 interview with Cavani (she describes The Night Porter as a love story where the protagonists are “clearer and more intelligent than the other characters,” and says her research into Nazism convinced her that the SS was “a homosexual cult”), along with the disc’s liner notes. What’s obviously missing is some sort of feature putting Cavani’s film in context with various other critiques of fascism in Italian cinema of the period, from The Conformist to Seven Beauties to Salò, but rights issues might have made that difficult. At any rate, while the extras are scant, they feel definitive in their way.