There has scarcely been a more unsettling and perversely potent love story than that which stimulates the precarious heart of Liliana Cavani’s Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter, 1974). Set in 1957 Vienna, this provocative film features a most unconventional affair between a callous fascist – the beleaguered concierge of the title, Maximilian Theo Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde) – and a Holocaust survivor, Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling), who is now married to an American orchestra conductor. Their chance reunion, years after their troubling initial encounter at a concentration camp, triggers a staggering coalescence of their haunted history and their apprehensive contemporary conditions. Prompting a series of disturbing flashbacks to their time of former acquaintance, the jarring incident leaves them emotionally flustered, physically fraught and, most curiously of all, passionately invigorated.
In word and deed, Max’s demeanour is cold, downtrodden and expressively subdued. Played with striking lucidity by Bogarde, the porter is swiftly attentive to the deviant needs of his eccentric clientele, but his detached fastidiousness betrays a latent sadistic streak. A former Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) officer, Max functioned during the war as a faux-doctor performing “photographic studies,” seen in shockingly cruel recollections in which victims are rounded up, stripped and documented. The process is one of voyeuristic humiliation and depravity, and it’s during the course of this distressing wickedness that he and Lucia (an enticing, enigmatic Rampling) first meet, struggle and, astonishingly, advance their relationship. Exuding a boyish appearance with her short hair, Lucia is eventually given a dress by Max, but this only enhances her image of youthful innocence, serving to heighten the aura of sexual aberration at the core of their relationship. Indeed, in the present day, Max refers to Lucia as his “little girl,” a moniker that, as it did in the past, underscores the young woman’s vulnerability. As it was then, though, so too is the current state of their circumspect, tenuous attachment defined by mutual dependency, complex compassion and even a love of sorts, as well as by a rekindled current of violent, sadomasochistic kinship.
Compounding the tension, Max is also embroiled in a legal scandal, anticipating a mock trial spearheaded by a group of former National Socialist comrades bent on covering their tracks and attempting to put to rest what remains of the evidence of their wartime crimes. It’s against this backdrop of impending inquisition that Cavani conjures a redolent anxiety and an overwhelming escalation of a parallel past and present. Taking place in the wake of World War II, The Night Porter shows Max attempting to reconcile with what occurred, to move beyond it and to consent to what remains. Lucia is also critical in this regard: her mere existence is a threat to all involved, as she could testify against Max and his deplorable associates (Max has already dispatched one potential witness bearing damaging evidence). Facing acute challenges to his loyalty, Max knows the world is closing in around him; according to one of the other Nazi holdovers, he “seems upset” – the understatement of the film.
Written by Cavani, Italo Moscati, Barbara Alberti and Amedeo Pagani, The Night Porter compellingly exposes a host of demons. From the time of their earliest physical engagement, Max and Lucia participate in a peculiar rapport distinguished by its conflicting, seemingly incompatible merger of lust, panic, slinky sensuality and carnal brutality; it’s an inexplicable bond only they can fully appreciate. Encumbered by the remnants of his convictions and destabilising culpability, Max finds a self-destructive refuge in Lucia, locking her up in an apartment and hiding away with her for days on end, isolating them both in a bizarre shroud of independent, impenetrable infatuation. Their association is, according to Max, a “Biblical story,” but it is also a story laden by an unnerving precedent. In one noteworthy flashback, perhaps the film’s most disconcerting and iconic sequence, Lucia is seen amongst a number of SS officers, several of whom are masked. Donning suspenders, long gloves, loose uniform pants and no shirt, she sings Marlene Dietrich’s “Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte” to the convened guards. The ominous musical number is capped by Max bestowing to his newfound beloved the head of a camp casualty who had formerly tormented her, a highly unsavoury declaration of devotion and, remarkably enough, protection. The scene is significant for its sexually charged content and its range of Nazi-era iconography, which Cavani proffers throughout the film, emphasising, for example, the physicality associated with “ideal” bodily specimens. This is also seen in the presence of Bert (Amedeo Amodio), a homosexual German dancer – appearing in flashbacks and currently residing in Max’s hotel – who, with great, gratuitous gusto, performs to Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s ballet Don Juan.
Partially shot in Rome’s Cinecittà Studios and featuring a roundly effective multilingual cast, The Night Porter is a methodically formalised film. Its colours are muted and melancholy, cinematographer Alfio Contini’s framing is rigorous and the tone is one of incessant unease. Cavani – who makes a point of noting that Lucia is the daughter of a socialist activist, highlighting her plight and subsequent association with Max as not necessarily being tied to any Jewish identity – had ventured into World War II territory before, directing the four-part television documentary Storia del III Reich (History of the Third Reich, 1961–1962) and La donna nella Resistenza (Women of the Resistance, 1965), which interviews female Italian partisans. But nothing prior to this film could suggest the baroque, melodramatic force of The Night Porter. Operatic and obscene, the film has been criticised for its inaccuracies and outwardly implausible storyline, and has been denigrated as belonging merely to the cult genre of Nazisploitation films that were surprisingly popular at the time (albeit, it must be acknowledged, an exceptionally realised one). Surely, its sensitive content is incendiary, its idiosyncratic vision likely to disappoint and/or disturb. Yet, no matter how problematic The Night Porter is, there can be no denying that, even in its occasional excesses – or, perhaps, because of them – Cavani’s film is also a twistedly audacious and fascinating tour de force about profound sensual craving.
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The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte, 1974 Italy 118 mins)
Prod. Co: Lotar Film Productions Prod: Esa De Simone, Robert Gordon Edwards Dir: Liliana Cavani Scr: Liliana Cavani, Italo Moscati, Barbara Alberti, Amedeo Pagani Phot: Alfio Contini Mus: Daniele Paris Ed: Franco Arcalli Art Dir: Nedo Azzini, Jean Marie Simon Cost: Piero Tosi
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti, Giuseppe Addobbati, Isa Miranda