- Director: Liliana Cavani
- Writers: Screenplay by Liliana Cavani, Italo Moscati, Barbara Alberti, and Amadeo Pagani, Story by Lilian Cavani, Barbara Alberti, and Amadeo Pagani
- Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti, Isa Miranda, Amadeo Amodio, and Nora Ricci
- Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#32)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video
Critics and audiences have been deeply divided over The Night Porter since it debuted in 1974. I think I’m on the “it’s actually… good, I think?” side, but the reasons a lot of people are not on that side are pretty obvious. The New York Times review ran under the headline of “The Night Porter is Romantic Pornography” and began with, “Let us now consider a piece of junk.” The basic problem that a lot of people have with the movie is not subtle. It’s a story where a woman falls in love with her torturer in a concentration camp and they have a bunch of semi-explicit sex (though honestly not quite as much as I was expecting based on the movie’s reputation), and then die. This movie came out at a time when “Nazispoitation,” using the atrocities they committed as an excuse for a bunch of gore and sex, was an actual genre. So it’s very easy to see how this movie would be immediately dismissed as trash and in bad taste. And perhaps it is.
Yet, despite sounding not dissimilar in a one sentence plot description, The Night Porter is a very, very different movie from Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and the many grindhouse movies of its ilk. Its director, Liliana Cavani, had made her first film as a documentary on Women of the Resistance for Italian TV, and was generally someone interested in exploring the sorts of female archetypes that didn’t get a lot of exposure in most films. Certainly she intended The Night Porter, her first film in English (and still her most-watched film internationally), to be a very frank exploration of people dealing with extreme trauma. Today the movie still has plenty of detractors, but also has a Criterion Collection release that includes a glowing essay taking the movie essentially at face value and an interview with the director where she basically dismisses her detractors for being too prudish. She recalls one discussion with an Italian censor where he told her one sex scene was too explicit. According to Cavani, she protested, “All their clothes are on!” To which he supposedly replied, “But she’s on top.”
The “present day” story is set in 1957 Vienna, where a former SS officer named Max (Dirk Bogarde) is working as, you guessed it, the night porter at a hotel. He allows a group of local sort-of-ex-Nazis to meet periodically at the hotel, where they discuss which living “witnesses” to their crimes still have information that might expose them. Soon Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) walks back into his life on the arm of an opera conductor staying at the hotel. We see in flashbacks that she did various sex things for him in the concentration camp in order to save her own skin. But in the present she falls back into his arms, while he also becomes estranged from his Nazi friends, who insist she should be questioned and possibly eliminated as a witness. Perhaps interestingly, in their present day relationship she is clearly the instigator of a handful of sadomasochistic bits, and in that way their relationship has turned on its head.
A few side bits of the movie seem to shed more light on what it’s trying to do. We also spend time with a dancer (played by Amadeo Amodio, who was apparently one of the more popular choreographers in Italy at the time) who saved himself by doing elaborate dances for his captors during the war. I guess the SS were super into ballet, but that is sort of not the point. We see in the present day that he is still performing his dances for his former captors, and is disappointed if they’re “postponed.”
Probably the most famous bit of the movie involves Lucia in a flashback, dressed in a SS uniform with suspenders but without the shirt, doing a sexy cabaret dance for Max and others. Seemingly every movie about Germany in this era has to have a cabaret scene, even that weird episode of Legends of Tomorrow where they visit late-30s Germany and Victor Garber sings “Edelweiss” (there’s your random TV reference for this essay). After she’s finished, Max presents with an elaborately wrapped “present,” which turns out to be the head of another prisoner who he says “tormented” her. She seems mostly shocked but slightly into it. In the present day, he explicitly comments to an old lady staying in the hotel (Isa Miranda) that it is like the biblical story of Salome. Her response, in so many words, is basically, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Perhaps because this is the most memorable scene in the movie, combined with a sort of European sexual frankness that has no problem showing full frontal nudity in either sex, it gained a reputation as an “erotic” film, in the vein of, say, Last Tango in Paris, but with Nazis. That seems to be missing the point, and in fact some reviewers, calling the movie offensive in one breath, would complain in the next about it not being sexy enough. But Cavani isn’t trying to titillate her audience, she’s trying to actually explore her themes and these characters.
That said, Cavani seems to have been naive as to how the public at large would actually take her movie. One of the other bits in that interview has her pointing out that there’s one line in the movie where Lucia is identified by one of the Nazis as “that daughter of a socialist.” That’s to say, she’s not in the concentration camp for being Jewish, because Cavani specifically “wanted to avoid the Jewish question.” While I kind of get the idea that her being a member of an entire group of people being systematically murdered would make this whole scenario somehow worse, it doesn’t make it actually OK, nor does it prevent the movie from evoking those things.
Bogarde, an English actor of Flemish descent, had been, at one time in the late 50s and early 60s, the top domestic box office draw in the UK, before eventually transitioning into more arty films from the Continent. He never quite made the transition to working in Hollywood the way at least some of his contemporaries did, and it has been suggested that this was because, despite his public denials at the time, he was pretty clearly gay and living with his lover. Rampling was also from England, but had a long and interesting career in European films, to the point where she has been nominated (so far) for four César Awards (the primary French film awards) but never for a BAFTA (the primary British film awards). Rampling and Bogarde had appeared together a few years earlier in The Damned, directed by another Italian, Luchino Visconti. That movie had been set in Nazi-era Germany and was also infamous for its sexual content (it was one of the early movies to receive an X-rating in the US), and even included Rampling performing a sexy cabaret number for Bogarde, et al. I get a sense that Cavani’s movie is at least partly in response to that one, though it’s hard to get a full sense of to what extent because I’ve never seen The Damned.
I don’t know if The Night Porter would have been better or worse if it had some sense of how many audiences would respond to its themes. I think perhaps it is better that, as far as I can tell, it does not, because if it had I think it certainly would have lent far more of an air of exploitation to the proceedings. In America, to this day it is generally considered in bad taste to make a movie about the Holocaust that has any other theme than how absolutely terrible the whole thing was. European filmmakers come at things from a slightly different angle, which can result in some semi-interesting movies while also sometimes resulting in some truly awful movies. The Night Porter has all the trappings of one of those truly awful ones, but instead of leaning into that it has things it wants to say. Whether it succeeds in its presentation of its themes, though, is a matter of debate to this day.