For cinephiles of a certain age, just hearing or reading the title of Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film The Night Porter conjures up a specific image: Charlotte Rampling, topless, in an SS cap, black opera gloves, baggy pants, and suspenders, posing seductively in front of a group of Nazi officers. Some variation of that picture, in varying degrees of explicitness, appeared in almost every element of The Night Porter’s promotional campaign, from the posters to the publicity stills to the covers of the VHS tapes. A lot of people who’ve never seen The Night Porter have an impression of what the movie is. It’s that other kinky Nazi movie—the arty one that isn’t Ilsa: She Wolf Of The SS.
That may sound like a glib dismissal of a serious movie—one that attempts to dramatize the power dynamics between people living in totalitarian states. But The Night Porter’s sexy ads weren’t just meant to coax audiences into the arthouse. The movie is largely about transgressive behavior, investigating how human desires survive and sometimes even thrive in otherwise dehumanizing situations.
Rampling’s character, Lucia, is a well-to-do woman staying in an elegant late-1950s Viennese hotel when she stumbles across Maximilian (Dirk Bogarde), the former Nazi who sexually tortured her in a concentration camp during the war. Worried that she’s going to expose his past, Maximilian agrees to resume their sadomasochistic relationship. But why does Lucia want to be slapped around again? Does she want to force Maximilian to remember what he did to her? Is she trying to understand what she went through with him when she was a teenager? Or did she develop a taste for being raped?
The latter possibility made The Night Porter much-debated—and in some circles excoriated—in the mid-1970s. In his one-star review, Roger Ebert called it “as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering.” On a surface level at least, The Night Porter lives down to Ebert’s uncharitable take. It plays like a pointlessly provocative spin on softcore Euro-smut, peppered with sequences of dancing and musical performances that seem to paint a wide variety of sensual pleasures as equally decadent. And it’s driven by a late-arriving plot that sees Lucia and Maximilian coming under siege from a preposterous ex-Nazi support group.
But a surface reading doesn’t really account for how effectively discomfiting and even beautiful so much of The Night Porter is. The main problem with the movie’s plot isn’t that it’s weirdly stiff and pulpy, but that it takes time away from what Cavani does so well in The Night Porter. At its best, the film layers Lucia’s and Maximilian’s flashbacks in such a way that that the lines between memory, fantasy, and nightmare get blurred—much as they often do in real life. When Maximilian makes a gun with his fingers and sticks it into the mouth of teenage Lucia, is that what actually happened? Or for all these years has Lucia’s mind been processing Maximilan’s methods of coercion as implied threats that she was too weak to challenge? Weighing these questions matters, at least when it comes to deciding whether The Night Porter is poetic, vile, or somewhere in between.
Reducing The Night Porter to the level of symbolism or dream doesn’t make the “no means yes” implications of its sexual violence any less offensive. But there’s a genuine emotional component to Cavani’s film that a lot of its biggest detractors have either missed or ignored. Early on, when Lucia is remembering what it was like to be stripped and pawed by the SS—and remembering how her younger self projected backward at that moment, to another brutal encounter with the Nazis—The Night Porter becomes a complex character sketch of a woman and a man who’ve been irreparably damaged. In all the time they were apart, Maximilian and Lucia were merely delaying the inevitable. Reunited, they movingly, tragically re-create the situation that ruined both of their lives.
The Night Porter had its origins in documentaries Cavani made for Italian television in the early 1960s, about fascism and resistance in World War II. One of those films—about women in the resistance movement—is included on Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition, along with short interviews where Cavani discusses both that documentary and The Night Porter. The extras help explain an often-inscrutable movie, by putting it in the context of the people who were tortured by the Nazis and learned—to their chagrin—that they themselves were capable of throwing aside their values and morals in order to get through another day.