Roger Ebert famously called Liliana Cavani’s post-holocaust potboiler “despicable” but Dan Slevin says it has earned a place in European cinema history.
Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter was instantly notorious upon release and seems an oddity today – the story of of a sado-masochistic couple, thrown together by war, bound by cruelty and reunited by fate, it is a film that could only have been brought to life in the weird world of 1970s European co-production when ‘erotic’ films could always find a home in seedy city centre cinemas and good directors would try to sneak some substance in amongst the nudity.
What’s interesting about The Night Porter, over 40 years on, is how not-sexy it is and that it was probably never intended to be. But the media and audiences being what they are – and marketing being what it is – the most famous image from the film is the one below:
Dirk Bogarde, one of the most interesting actors who ever lived, went from being a suave matinee idol to an arthouse specialist in tortured sexual ambiguity. In The Night Porter he plays Max, the ubiquitous porter at a Vienna Hotel. It is 1957 and the recovery from World War II has barely taken hold. Former Nazis are everywhere, some less remorseful than others. Max is one of the less remorseful ones but he knows to keep his head down and his profile low. Once a week he meets with a strange little group of other Nazis who, at first, we think are salving their consciences but in fact they are pretty much unreconstructed and their mock trials of each other – much is made of witnesses and evidence gathering – are simply a way to absolve their guilt so they can be ready to rise again.
Bogarde being Bogarde, you’re never too sure on which side he falls but it turns out that he was never that much an ideologue. His attraction to Nazism was the ability to wield sexual power over others (and probably the shiny boots too).
Into his hotel comes Charlotte Rampling, wife of an orchestra conductor on a tour of Europe. Glances are exchanged. They know each other, but from where. Sudden flashbacks tell us: a concentration camp, Bogarde pretending to be a doctor in a white coat taking photographs of naked prisoners, especially the cowering, fearful, young Rampling. He takes a shine to her, saves her life. Stockholm Syndrome kicks in and they fall in love – but on his abusive terms.
She decides not to follow her husband on the tour but instead moves in with Bogarde who leaves his job so they can be together. Unfortunately, his Nazi friends know who she is and the threat to them that she represents. They are coming for them both…
Set in Vienna but shot in Rome’s famous Cinecittà Studios with a polyglot cast speaking several different languages and then all dubbed into English, The Night Porter is a clunky film to a modern ear and eye. The freewheelin’ use of the zoom lens also marks it out as a product of the 70s but it is a film with lots to interest us. Bogarde in particular is the kind of actor we don’t see much of these days (maybe Malkovich – of which more later).
By the late 60s he had tired of the nice romantic comedies that had made his name and was choosing to work with interesting European directors like Visconti, Fassbinder and Tavernier. Despite always looking tremendous, his roles in those days were without vanity and Max in The Night Porter is a fine example. Utterly morally compromised but hopelessly in love and determined to be true to himself.
Rampling had it a bit tougher. She had to be the brutalised victim, an of sexual entertainment and then the beautiful member of the European elite brought back down to earth. Her journey is a much more uncomfortable one to follow.
Before this project, I hadn’t been aware of Liliana Cavani and didn’t even know that The Night Porter had been co-written and directed by women. I had thought that it was simply a high class version of what eventually became known as Nazisploitation (and it is that, too) but it is a worthy and interesting contribution to the #52filmsbywomen project.
Cavani has made 13 feature films and before this I had only seen one – Ripley’s Game starring John Malkovich as Patricia Highsmith’s charming psychopathic conman – but there a couple more on the wish list for me now. After all, now that you know it exists, who can resist a film about St. Francis of Assisi starring Mickey Rourke (especially when you find out it was nominated for a Palme d’Or) or a war film starring Marcello Mastroianni, Burt Lancaster and Claudio Cardinale.
Liliana Cavani discusses Charlotte Rampling for the Criterion release of The Night Porter. (In Australian and New Zealand it is available on DVD and Blu-ray through Umbrella.)
#52filmsbywomen2017 is a project encouraging film lovers to seek out and enjoy films made by women. Dan will be posting one new review a week throughout 2017.