Awash in decadence and originally promoted as “The most controversial picture of our time,” Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) is a fascinating example of a certain type of film from a certain point in time. This sadomasochistic “love” story involving an SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) from a concentration camp and one of his prisoners (Charlotte Rampling) is pure 1974 art house. Was it ever a great film? That’s doubtful, but it retains a certain importance—as much for understanding the history of film as for its intrinsic merits.
Ostensibly, Liliana Cavani (whose debatable importance rests largely on this one film) views her film as a love story—and, on a certain perverse level, it can be taken as one. But it is not on that level that the film was promoted, nor is it the reason the film retains its fascination. Let’s be honest here, The Night Porter was made, promoted and sold on controversy—in large part on what Roger Ebert called (and cringed for the “obscenity” of the term) “Nazi chic” in his blistering 1975 review. I often take issue—especially in his reviews from the 1970s—when Ebert gets on his moral high horse, but I understand where he’s coming from here, even while not quite subscribing to his outrage. I do, however, think it needs to be considered.
The story involves former SS officer Maximillian Aldorfer (Bogarde) who is working incognito at a hotel as night porter in 1957. He hasn’t really put his past behind him, since (somewhat absurdly, but it’s essential to the plot) he and a covey of other (not very) ex-Nazis get together to work for some kind of collective safety and vaguely plot for a return to their former “glory.” He differs to the extent that he seems to be more or less content with his lot, but it doesn’t matter, because his former concentration-camp lover Lucia (Rampling) walks into the hotel with her symphony-conductor husband. All bets are immediately off—for both Max and Lucia, which seals both their fates.
In itself, this isn’t particularly inflammatory. That is left to the film’s concentration-camp flashbacks, of which there is no shortage—and all of which are unsettling. These range from the peculiarly clinical to the sadistic to (and here’s the key to it all) to the sadomasochistic. This not only applies to the relationship between Lucia and Max, but to the overall tone. Frankly, a lot of it feels like the movie has a bad case of Visconti-envy—wanting desperately to be The Damned (1969), but being incapable of pulling it off. I’m not saying it doesn’t make for weirdly compelling viewing—it’s hard to look away—but it seems unclear in its aims.
It doesn’t help that the movie winds up in the melodrama of Max and Lucia being starved out of his apartment by the Nazi old boys’ club (they want her dead because she’s a potential threat as a witness), and this becomes both rather dull and silly in its drawn-out seriousness. But it all stands as a testament to the era of the director as superstar and a movie industry that was far less afraid to take a chance on more controversial and less audience-safe material. In this regard, the film is invaluable.