Saturday, June 11, 2011


Liliana Cavani, 1974
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Phillipe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti

Written and directed by Liliana Cavani, Il portiere di notte falls into that bleak, morally ambiguous gray area between art film and exploitation -- in other words, my favorite kind of movie. My least favorite film critic, Roger Ebert, called this film "a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering." While I would be willing to debate the artistic or cultural merit of Caligula with him, The Night Porter is undeniably an important, if transgressive work that exploits the memory of Holocaust suffering no more or no less than a Hollywood blockbuster like Schindler's List (plus it's a better film than Spielberg's milquetoast tearjerker).

Max (the powerful Bogarde) works as a night porter in an elegant hotel when he has a surprise encounter with Lucia (the icy and beautiful Rampling), who is traveling with her composer husband. When their eyes accidentally meet, it's revealed through flashbacks that Max was an SS officer in a concentration camp and Lucia was an inmate and his mistress. They soon resume their sexual, sadomasochistic relationship, which is seemingly consensual. As they abandon themselves to mutual obsession, they are forced to hole up Max's apartment. An underground Nazi cell -- Max's former associates -- are determined to hunt down Lucia, as she is one of the last witnesses who could testify against them.

Cavani's film is both powerful and shocking, because it confronts roles that are typically scene as black and white, such as Nazi vs concentration camp prisoner, or rape victim vs rapist. Lucia is never absolutely a victim and Max is never absolutely a perpetrator. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Lucia is seductively dressed in only the pants and hat of an SS uniform and sings a Marlene Dietrich song in a Nazi bar. Max rewards her with the head of an unpleasant male inmate, a la Salome and John the Baptist. Max, the vicious Nazi, later transforms himself into a victim and metaphorical camp prisoner by locking himself in his apartment to starve, choosing Lucia over his bitter post-war life.

Obviously there are a lot of problematic elements in The Night Porter. The sexualization of a camp victim is repulsive at best, particularly in regards to Lucia's eroticized thinness contrasted with the other squalid prisoners marked by age, grayness, and filth. Cavani adds a further level of discomfort by turning the other camp prisoners into voyeurs who quietly observe the sexual acts between Max and Lucia. This problem of voyeurism and exploitation links to most fictional filmic portrayals of concentration camp life and the Holocaust.

Not to defend Cavani, but I believe The Night Porter provides an intentionally unrealistic portrayal of camp life. Though this gives it a sensationalist bent -- how can the famous SS uniform burlesque be seen as anything but? -- it doesn't necessarily propel it into the realm of pure exploitation. Like Haneke's pre-fascist Germany in Die weisse Band, the environment is merely a stage. Lucia herself is not specifically Jewish. The film seems more concerned with questioning the roles of victim and perpetrator, guilt and shame. Though we would obviously assume that any camp survivor feels both guilt and shame, so does Max. He holes himself up in the hotel during daylight hours, living a quiet life and only working at night, afraid of the light because of the shame he feels.

There is also the compelling, unconscious repetition of the past, a gripping theme for all of post-World War II Europe, particularly the fascist countries. Lucia most obviously embodies this, though her actions could easily be blamed on Stockholm Syndrome. The Nazi sleeper cell is also guilty. They cannot escape the past and continue to have "party" meetings and mock trials, exonerating fellow SS members, collecting evidence, and punishing past prisoners.

At this point the connection between fascism and sadomasochism has moved mostly beyond taboo into trope. In 1974, I don't feel that was the case. Though it is not nearly as powerful of a political narrative as Pasolini's Salo (1975), both films share a similarly uncomfortable, morally ambiguous theme about problems of victimization and the resignation of personal freedom. I think it is worth seeing, but you might have to brace yourself. The Criterion release of The Night Porter is obviously the only way to see this film.

Finally, I thought I would include a great article that examines the role of sexuality and the Holocaust in fiction, focusing on The Night Porter and D.M. Thomas's novel, The White Hotel.

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