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Utterly depraved and utterly fascinating
on January 25, 2004
"The Night Porter" must have been one of those films that shocked people when it first came out. Directed by Liliana Cavani and sporting a garish cover on the Criterion Collection DVD (yes, the cover image does come from a scene in the movie, but not in the way you would think), "The Night Porter" deals with extremely unpleasant psychological situations stemming from the holocaust. The film is definitely not for everyone, but those capable of keeping an open mind may find much to like about this generally repulsive piece of art house cinema. You have to hand it to Criterion for continuing to release pristine transfers of films considered anathema to mainstream audiences. My experiences with this DVD company have introduced me to such wondrous delights as "Blood for Dracula," "Man Bites Dog," "Peeping Tom," "Hearts and Minds," and several other challenging titles. My only gripe with Criterion concerns the cost of their DVDs, which often seem quite high even for such great movies.
"The Night Porter" is about a night porter working in a fancy hotel in Vienna, Austria twelve years after the end of World War II. If the movie merely touched on the surface aspects involving night portering, it would be a dull affair indeed. How to make a film delving into the multifaceted fascinations of checking in luggage, or taking phone calls from irate customers? No, "The Night Porter" has little to do with the hotel industry and much to do with a hideous relationship between two tortured souls. The night porter at this particular hotel, Max Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde), was once an SS officer assigned to a concentration camp where he tortured and killed inmates. Post war investigations into war atrocities has Max and his fellow Nazi henchmen on edge; they meet often to discuss their efforts to suppress evidence and other ways to cover their tracks. Max is ambivalent about these meetings, and becomes even more so after a chance meeting with a woman he had a very special relationship with in the camp. This woman, Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling), initially expresses horror at seeing her former lover/tormentor in the flesh after all these years, but then something grim and repellent happens. The sick spark that united victim and oppressor all those years ago blossoms anew. Lucia feigns a lame excuse to her husband about staying behind so she can indulge her desires for Max. And this is only the beginning of the trouble.
Max's friends express great alarm about this relationship. They see Lucia's presence as a significant danger to their yearning for anonymity, and they want Max to jettison the love affair and come over to their way of thinking. Max suspects spending time with Atherton presents a danger to him, but he cannot bear the idea of giving her up again. He secrets her away in his apartment in an effort to hide the relationship from his companions, who warn Max that keeping this woman in bondage will force them to take drastic measures to insure their secrecy. The former Nazi's go so far as to monitor Max's apartment twenty four hours a day, taking pot shots at him whenever he sticks his head outside for even a minute. When Max and Lucia run out of food and drink, they make a terrible decision about their future that will have permanent, unpleasant results for the pair.
It would be easy to write off "The Night Porter" as an exploitation film, a movie in the same vein as Tinto Brass's "Salon Kitty" or "Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS," two films which borrow themes from National Socialist Germany to make a cheap statement about the nightmare of the holocaust. "The Night Porter" does contain many disturbing images that could rate as exploitation fare: the flashbacks to the concentration camp where Max and Lucia first meet immediately comes to mind, as does the little dance number Lucia performs for her lover and a room full of SS officers. Having said that, I really don't feel this movie is exploitative. There is something more going on here than mere sensationalism, perhaps a statement about the nature of power and how it pertains to love during a horrific event. I would need to watch the film again to examine Lucia's desire for Max, but for the former SS officer I think the need to relive a time when he was a man with position and power is the main reason he rekindles this doomed relationship. Here's a guy who held the power of life and death over thousands of people, and now he works as a lowly hotel clerk. Why wouldn't he want to taste again the rush of power he gets when he dominates Lucia in his apartment? Sure, it is sick, but people do inexplicable things in relationships all the time that are just as disturbing.
A quick note on the performances: Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde both excel in their respective roles. Rampling especially is always easy on the eyes and has a wonderfully expressive face capable of transmitting complex emotions to the audience without uttering a word. If for no other reason, you should watch this film just to see these two actors turn in amazing performances. Married with a marvelous picture transfer, sumptuous set pieces, gloomy atmosphere, and a great script, "The Night Porter" is a one of a kind film that is sure to make an impression. Thanks again, Criterion, for releasing yet another brilliant cinematic oddity.