The Night Porter
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Night Porter (Italian: Il Portiere di notte) is a controversial 1974 film by Italian director Liliana Cavani, starring Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling. The cabaret scene - with Greta Keller's 'Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte' - is the most memorable one of the film.
Dirk Bogarde plays Maximilian Theo Aldorfer, a former Nazi SS officer, and Charlotte Rampling plays Lucia Atherton, a concentration camp survivor who has been tormented by Aldorfer. Thirteen years after World War II, Lucia meets Aldorfer again; he is now the night porter at a Vienna hotel. There, they fall back into their sadomasochistic relationship.
To hide his shame about his past, Max works obsessively as a hotel night porter where his aim is to please his guests, especially the Countess - a confidante who requires his services to get her young men as sexual partners. Many of the other guests are war criminals, who hold secret meetings in the hotel to uncover any evidence connecting them with their war crimes. Max prepares with these former Nazis a strategy for his upcoming War Trial at the hands of the Allies, as they conduct mock trials to learn about records in the archives they should destroy and witnesses to be tampered with or eliminated. Into this hotel culture, which reeks of nostalgia for the Führer, comes the only live witness who can testify against him - the young Viennese camp inmate who is now married to an American opera conductor. She is someone he sexually abused in the camp and Max can't stop obsessing over their past torturous relationship. They are drawn uncontrollably to each other despite the dark past both of them share and the apparent danger from Max's unchanged fanatical and bloodthirsty Nazi comrades, Klaus and Hans.
The Night Porter uses desaturated colour to evoke memory of the Holocaust and to evoke a shady 1950s Vienna plagued by post-World War II guilt. Max and Lucia are victims of this frightening new world in which nothing can be trusted and their forbidden love doomed to misunderstanding. The film depicts not only the political continuity between wartime Nazism and post-war Europe, but also the psychological continuity of characters locked into compulsive repetition of the past.
In responses to The Night Porter, Cavani was both celebrated for her courage in dealing with the disturbing theme of sexual transgression and, simultaneously, castigated for the controversial manner in which she presented that transgression: within the context of a Nazi Holocaust narrative. The film has been accused of mere sensationalism: film critic Roger Ebert calls it "as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering." Given the film's dark and disturbing themes and a somewhat ambiguous moral clarification at the end, The Night Porter has tended to divide audiences. It is, however, the film for which Cavani is best known.