• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:February 7, 2022

The Night Porter: Despicable or Brilliant

Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde. Photo: AVCO Embassy

It’s comfortable to look at a film that was made almost 50 years ago and say the critics were wrong. But there’s always a part of me that wonders how I would have judged the film had I been alive in 1974. Obviously, it’s a pointless exercise, but I still think I would have found The Night Porter interesting, because it’s far from boring and that means a lot, after all. At the time, many critics hated the film. The New York Times called it ”a piece of junk” and Roger Ebert labeled it ”a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering”. Director Liliana Cavani knew how to stir emotions. This would be her most memorable film.

Taking photos of victims
Vienna, 1957. Maximilian Theo Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde) is a night porter at a swank hotel, but his past won’t let go of him. During the war, he served as a Nazi SS officer, taking photos of victims in concentration camps. He’s a member of a group of former Nazi officers in Vienna who stage mock trials of each other as a way of preparing for an actual war crimes trial that might come sooner or later. They prepare by identifying documents and witnesses that need to be destroyed and killed. The others know about a woman, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), that Max had a special relationship with in one of the camps.

By chance, they notice each other in Vienna where Lucia has come as the wife of an American conductor. Max’s first instinct is to protect her from his murderous friends…

Controversial over the years
Cavani came from a background of historical documentaries, directing them for Italian television in the early 1960s, including one that examined the rise of Nazi Germany. The peculiar idea she had in the early 1970s, a love affair between a Nazi and a prisoner in a concentration camp, naturally faced resistance, and The Night Porter has remained controversial over the years. It’s also been a moneymaker for repertory theaters at a time when the film wasn’t easily available on VHS. Bogarde and Rampling had already met in The Damned (1969), Luchino Visconti’s drama about an industrialist family benefiting from their ties to the Nazi Party, but this film would be a special challenge for them. Bogarde had served in World War II and was one of the first Allied officers to reach the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1945, which had a devastating effect on him.

Still, he does manage to generate our sympathy, to some extent, for this particular German, Max, which is a feat because he’s no hero. Max committed many crimes in the camps, apart from abusing Lucia. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, styled like an absurd piece of theater, a topless Lucia performs a Marlene Dietrich song, partly dressed in a SS uniform, and is served the severed head of another inmate as reward; Max borrowed the idea from the biblical story of Salome. This character is both repulsive and someone we end up rooting for (perhaps because he’s complex and his friends are simply one-note Nazi villains), but Lucia is also a difficult woman, a victim who’s fully devoted to her tormentor and the sexual pleasures he arouses.

Their love affair is just as compelling as it is doomed, but it’s the most important part of the film; the flashback scenes in the concentration camp are too abstract to be taken seriously. But The Night Porter is valuable as a dark portrait of unreasonably passionate love, bolstered by exceptional lead performances.

The Night Porter 1974-Italy. 115 min. Color. Produced by Esa De Simone, Robert Gordon Edwards. Directed by Liliana Cavani. Screenplay: Liliana Cavani, Italo Moscati. Cinematography: Alfio Contini. Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Maximilian Theo Aldorfer), Charlotte Rampling (Lucia), Philippe Leroy (Klaus), Gabriele Ferzetti, Giuseppe Addobbati, Isa Miranda.

Trivia: Italian title: Il portiere di notte. Romy Schneider and Mia Farrow were reportedly considered for Rampling’s role.

Last word: “The last one I spoke with [while doing research] was a Milanese, a survivor of Auschwitz. And what struck me the most was that she told me that what she would never forgive the Germans for was having made her know a part of herself that she didn’t know existed, to steal food from the weakest and do other things to survive. From these answers, ‘The Night Porter’ was born’.” (Cavani, Spain’s News)



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