The Night Porter: Power, Spectacle, and Desire

On Film / Essays — Dec 9, 2014

With her 1974 The Night Porter, Liliana Cavani established her reputation as one of international cinema’s most provocative artists. A film about the inward journey of a transgressive couple, it followed years of ambitious and impressive work in which Cavani experimented with traditional cinematic techniques and narratives and became increasingly concerned with finding ways to express thought visually and with addressing historical phenomena, prominently fascism and Nazism, as symptomatic states in which the human being can be understood only outside established morality.

Like many other independent filmmakers of her generation, Cavani had to be strong-­willed and resilient to pursue her goals through many difficult years of apprenticeship. She has always pursued a cinema of ideas, her work affirming as it reassesses freedom against fascist and clerical rhetorics. Her characters deviate from social and political conformity; they oppose the rituals of power. They are driven to a kind of transgression that enables them to transcend the prisonlike limits of societal structures. In later works, they move toward an agonizing process of self­-awareness and tragic isolation.

Born on January 12, 1937, in Carpi (Modena), in the northern region of Emilia­-Romagna, Cavani was greatly attracted to moving images from a young age. During her high school years, she founded a cine club. Her upbringing placed her between her mother’s militant antifascism and her father’s sphere of conservative values of the 1930s landowners. Cavani would later assert secular, politically independent positions.

Cavani’s formal education was literary and classical. But, after graduating from the University of Bologna, she decided to go to Rome to attend Italy’s national film school, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, where she was the only woman studying directing. She graduated in 1962 and began working as a freelance director for RAI, the state television network. Her first assignments were historical documentaries, in which she was able to experiment with cinematic techniques, shooting in 16 mm and 35 mm film instead of the standard video. Two notable programs she made in this period are History of the Third Reich (1961–62) and Women of the Resistance (1965). The first, a four­part series on Nazi Germany, documents the unfathomable atrocities of the extermination camps. Cavani spent months at the Moviola, watching raw footage. In addition to documenting the camps, she focused on the way in which the spectacles staged by Hitler’s regime disguised violence to fabricate national prestige. For the second work, she interviewed female Italian partisan fighters who had survived the Lager (Nazi concentration camps). Cavani was surprised by the fact that only the victims wanted to remember, while everyone else was in haste to forget the war and its horrors. The Night Porter could not have been realized without her technical and psychological investigation of Nazism in these programs. As a mature artist, Cavani would retain a number of characteristics from her documentary training, including the predominance of medium shots, a less mobile camera, the use of a normal lens (50 mm), a meticulous reconstruction of reality by means of authentic details, and an inclination to experiment with narrative structures.

Cavani’s early work impressed Angelo Guglielmi, head of special programming at RAI­2, who proposed the idea of a feature film on Italy’s patron saint. Francis of Assisi aired in 1966 and was the most controversial program of the year. Cavani divests the figure of Saint Francis of all legendary attributes and portrays him as a normal individual who performs a revolutionary social role. An archetypal story of class and generational conflict, this dramatic film gives remarkable evidence of Cavani’s stylistic techniques and also serves as an ideal transition from her early documentaries to Galileo (1968), The Cannibals (1969), The Guest (1971), and Milarepa (1973). In these dramas, the question of power and knowledge, which is central to Cavani’s cinematic discourse, is posited within the spectacular settings of religious, political, and social revolutions. Their protagonists are idealists who transgress the boundaries of conventional society in search of identity. They undertake adventurous journeys from the center to the margins of society in order to experience a new way of life. Galileo, Antigone, Anna, and the Tibetan yogi personify the unrest of their times.

This tendency to entertain new experiences, to explore the limits of cultural conventions, is fully displayed in The Night Porter, Beyond Good and Evil (1977), and The Berlin Affair (1985), as well as in Cavani’s most recent theatrical feature, Ripley’s Game (2002), a psychological drama adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s celebrated Ripley series. In these films, Cavani introduces a more dangerous state of mind, placed outside traditional morality. The tragic view of life, rather than the social obstacles to self­-realization, is what comes to dominate her cinema. She privileges images over dialogue to advance her narrative and to convey her characters’ emotions and thoughts. In particular, Cavani is concerned with the thematization of compulsive, repetitive desire and pleasure that exceed the logic of history.

The Night Porter was her first film to move in that direction. The passion that led earlier protagonists to confront the hierarchical boundaries of their times now fuels an inner journey centered on a scandalous love affair. The story concerns the encounter of an ex–SS officer, Max (Dirk Bogarde), and a former concentration camp prisoner, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), in a Viennese hotel in 1957, where Lucia, now married to an American orchestra conductor, is staying with her touring husband. Max and Lucia replay the ruinous sexual games that bonded them in the Lager. After Lucia moves into Max’s apartment, and while they are being hunted by a group of Nazi war criminals, the couple carry the fateful affair to mutual annihilation.

The plot develops through a series of flashbacks. Max and Lucia reveal their most hidden sexual desires in an interior that becomes a theater of greater historical realities; they themselves become the spectacle that exemplifies the barbarity of the Third Reich. During the initial sequence of the flashbacks, Cavani establishes an ambiguous form of communication between the prisoner and her torturer through the camera lens. Max is first identified while filming Lucia, naked, upon her arrival at the concentration camp. He focuses on a close­up of her terrified stare, as she turns away from the bright light aimed at her. The viewer seems no longer to be watching a film but rather to be witnessing a horrific event as it unfolds. Here, as elsewhere in The Night Porter, the complicity of cinema with transgression and voyeuristic compulsion becomes a subject of the film itself.

Cavani works with stylized sets in order to convey tension through elaborate lighting patterns, confining framing, and the positioning of the actors’ bodies. We are constantly made to participate in a poetic gaze that encompasses the characters’ obsessive ambiguity. The use of reflective surfaces in the decor, in conjunction with the flashbacks, alters the temporal continuity of the story. Backgrounds are often out of focus to provide implicit commentary about the couple’s emotional instability. Spotlights, mirrors, movie and still cameras convey a sense of the refraction of the spectacle of history. They evoke a demonic underworld, in which the ideal order of the self is opposed with the madness of being.

Contrary to what some critics have written, Lucia is not a Jewish prisoner but the daughter of a socialist activist. In many interviews, Cavani explicitly underscored the universal dimension of Lucia’s story and explained that she wanted the issue of the abused victim to include every victim. In one of the most controversial scenes, Lucia performs as Salome dressed in Nazi regalia to an audience of leering officers and masked musicians. In this smoky and macabre setting, an atmosphere reminiscent of the German expressionist theater that preceded the rise of Hitler, she is displayed as a body for their fantasy. Max succumbs to the seduction of Lucia’s ambiguous sexuality and rewards her with a gift box as soon as the dance is over: extreme close­ups allow us to observe Lucia’s childlike anticipation. But her curiosity turns into horror. She watches her gift in silence as she is doomed to share the fate of Herodias’s daughter.

During this scene, the couple’s body language expresses the regressive nature of their bond and their complicity in time and space. What makes it so important is that Lucia’s cabaret dance is intrinsically connected with dread and death, the realities of the concentration camps. The heterosexual framing of her body is a counterpoint to the world of the character Bert, a classical dancer who, with his bold seductiveness, visualizes for Cavani the homoerotic cult realized by the narcissistic corps of the SS. Bert embodies the hypnotic power of the regime and its manipulation of the German soul through the staging of alluring spectacles. Cavani’s visualization of a spectral interior, a self­-created world of projection and imagination, defines the characters’ story as a performance about power, revealing the interplay of control and subversion, Eros and Thanatos.

In The Night Porter, the supremacy of desire is portrayed through hallucinatory compositions and a pictorial expressionism that evokes such artists as Munch, Klimt, and Schiele. Vienna is a city illuminated by a cold, gray light, a tonality that signals psychic disintegration. Max and Lucia are a couple with a great taste for the underground. They are tragic individuals who seek a provocative meaning in life, but a free form of desire is historically a scandal.

Cavani’s characters do not acquire consciousness at the end, but they are driven to self­inflicted death out of extreme lucidity. In Max’s apartment, a site of powerful libidinal play, the couple finally drop their masks and choose to end their siege. Of all the images in the final part of the film, that of Max and Lucia walking away from the camera, framed by the overpowering structure of the iron bridge, is the most haunting. There is no musical commentary to mark the moment when they are gunned down and their bodies fall like wireless marionettes. In this expressionistic cityscape, the solid limits of the bridge vanish into a limitless horizon where sky and water dissolve.

Max and Lucia represent predetermined roles assigned to them by power; their strength is to accept them. Some critics denounced the erotic context of the film and argued that The Night Porter should be considered pornography. But Cavani is not interested in exploiting her characters by subscribing to the notion of sexual aberration encoded in the B movies of the so­called mode re?tro (a term used to describe French films from the late 1960s and early 1970s that revisit the Nazi occupation of their country during World War II). In her film, what is important is not that Max and Lucia resume their scandalous relationship but the way it has been visualized as an ambiguous encounter in history. Cavani designates the interplay of the look as a simulacrum for an aestheticization of the body politic. Games of erotic enslavement and domination reflect the paradoxical historical situation in which the couple reenact their love. Thus, sadism and masochism represent the creative level of the imaginary. Max’s apartment, the new Lager, becomes a prison in which freedom can be attained only by repetitive, self­destructive actions. Dirk Bogarde’s puppetlike performance reveals the signs of historical predetermination; it is contrasted with the perverse beauty of Charlotte Rampling. Lucia and Max show the fundamental face of Nazism, the cold exhibition of a rational violence perpetrated on the individual within controlled systems of power.

The Night Porter represents the Cavanian film at its best. She asserts her presence as the producer of the look and works to place her film against the strategies of dominant culture. Her characters embody a dream of a moment beyond, set against the rhetoric and the rituals of power, even when it alludes to a demonic underworld, to the experience of pleasure and terror represented by Max and Lucia. As of this writing, Cavani has directed thirteen feature films, as well as documentaries, television series, and operas (her latest film, her third on Francis of Assisi, is scheduled to be released in December 2014). It has been a creative journey whose ultimate goal is the total human experience of a film.