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The Night Porter is a provocative and problematic film. Made in 1974 by Italian director Liliana Cavani, it can be seen as an exercise in perversion and exploitation of the Holocaust for the sake of sensationalism. On the other hand, a closer reading of this English-language psychological thriller suggests a dark vision of compelling characters doomed by their World War II past.
When the film was released in the United States, critical response was hardly favorable; indeed, Vincent Canby’s New York Times review was nothing short of scathing. Under the headline “The Night Porter Is Romantic Pornography,” he began, “Let us now consider a piece of junk.” And some viewers were disturbed that a woman director was portraying a female concentration camp survivor as the masochistic sex object of her Nazi captor.
However, much like another controversial Italian director at the time, Lina Wertmüller, Cavani has never presented herself as a “feminist” director; indeed, her subsequent movies, such as The Skin (1981, with Marcello Mastroianni and Burt Lancaster), and Francesco (a.k.a. St. Francis of Assisi, 1989, with Mickey Rourke), were hardly concerned with positive female role models.
Cavani’s casting of in The Night Porter Dirk Bogarde as Max and Charlotte Rampling as Lucia recalls the roles they played five years earlier in Luchino Visconti’s The Damned. Bogarde’s potential for sleek savagery and Rampling’s skeletal beauty are well suited to these demonic films, where the only exit is death.
The action is set in 1957 Vienna, where a secret organization of former Nazis meets periodically and “eliminates” dangerous witnesses. Max, a former SS officer, is a night porter in an elegant hotel. When Lucia enters the lobby with her husband, there is a tense exchange of looks whose significance is fleshed out in flashbacks: she was a concentration camp inmate. Images of the past punctuate the present narrative with urgent frequency, and suggest that Lucia survived by being Max’s plaything.
Amid the growing tension of their mutual anxiety over being alone together, Max eliminates a former prisoner who had been his friend. He and Lucia are finally reunited in a scene of violent passion, all the more steamy for their accumulated repression. Rather than “file her away,” as he is told to do, he locks his willing partner in his apartment where they replay their concentration camp scene.
Lucia is not the only former prisoner who seeks to re-create the conditions of intense sensation—there is also a young male dancer who used to perform seminude for the SS, and who now has Max arrange lights in his hotel room so that he can do his number once more.
The obscene instances of replay constitute a role-reversal, for one flashback presents Lucia as a Nazi emblem: in the requisite smoky cabaret scene (of which variations can be found in The Damned, Cabaret, Just a Gigolo, The Serpent’s Egg, Lili Marleen, and The Formula) Lucia sings in German—wearing only pants, suspenders, and an SS cap—while invoking Salome.
The obsessive love of Max and Lucia ultimately re-creates a concentration camp situation in which they are both victims. They experience paranoia because they are being pursued; they no longer go out; finally, hunger and lack of air make them regress to an animal level. The core of the film might be Max’s confession that he works at night because during the day, in the light, he is ashamed.
His repressed guilt is perhaps as great as his initially repressed lust, and Max’s ultimate action is to turn himself into a physically degraded and emotionally shattered prisoner. The Night Porter depicts not only the political continuity between wartime Nazism and 1957 Austria, but also the psychological continuity of characters locked into compulsive repetition of the past.
Annette Insdorf, author of François Truffaut and Indelible Shadows: Films and the Holocaust, directs undergraduate film studies at Columbia University.