Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter is a harrowing piece of cinema that details the tragedy of Lucia. Charlotte Ramping’s exquisite turn is unforgettable in this sadomasochistic nightmare.
Max (Dirk Bogarde) is a night porter in a Vienna hotel in the 1950s. When beautiful Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) checks in, they recognise each other from a terrible past; Max was an SS officer in a concentration camp who had abused and tortured her, then a teenage prisoner. Lucia is travelling with her orchestra conductor husband. But when he leaves to continue his tour, Lucia stays behind as she and Max find themselves compelled to renew their former, intense, sadomasochistic relationship.
Max is a reluctant member of a group of former SS who are ruthlessly covering up their pasts. They soon consider Lucia a threat and urge Max to hand her over. He refuses and hides out with Lucia, while his former comrades exert their threats.
We see a mixture of emotions and tones throughout the 50 minutes of build-up of our two leads reconnecting once again. We witness Lucia attempt to hide from Max, to keep away, slowly this sheds away, to her continually looking back at him at a concert, first shocked, and then excited, but shame and disappointment cover over her when he leaves. It is fascinating and troublesome all at the same time. A powder keg of emotion and sexual tension is building as the two begin to remember their time together. Both the traumatic in Lucia’s case and the curious in Max’s.
When the two do connect, it is aggressive, desperate and needy from Max. He has been without someone who he thinks is his love for too long. For Lucia, she has tried to pent up her feelings regarding her time at the camp. The re-emergence of her tormenter and former lover sparks the worst in her. The psychosexual nature of The Night Porter never leaves throughout the running time. Be it with Max and Lucia or Max and Bert.
For the first hour, Max seems reserved, guilt-ridden for what he has done. Then Lucia returns to his life and he envelopes his world around her again, he becomes consumed by her. Not letting anyone near her for fear of losing her. The evidence that he has truly lost himself is when he talks to another guest who knows his situation. His guilt has gone and his want and need to be in control comes to the fore.
The exact opposite can be said of Lucia. She is strong-willed and confident until she sees Max. After that, she becomes a paranoid mess. Unwilling to accept that the idea that Max’s work of breaking her down when they were at the concentration camp has seeped its way back in. Her true loss within herself is when Hans comes to persuade her to come to be a witness for Max’s mock trial. Her reactions the entire time show her regression as a human. Lucia crawls and hides under a table like a cat, before eventually backing up into the bathroom and hissing for him to leave.
She has turned feral under the gaze of her tormenters. She knows she is losing herself, but simply can’t help it. Lucia knows she should go home to New York, but she is as ill as Max and his cohort. Their desperate co-dependency of each other spells their doom. This is a relationship that never should have been rediscovered and they both know it.
Influenced by a real-life encounter and others that have been documented of camp survivors detailing the love or apparent love of SS officers that they had relationships with eventually in their eyes willingly. She was influenced by the nature of how the Nazi officers in The Night Porter tried to hide in plain sight in Europe. Many ex Nazi’s fled to South America or the Middle East, while bold number attempted to rid all evidence of their existence from the record. This is where our two subplots collide and it would be a lie to say if that concept is not intriguing.
The pacing by Liliana Cavani expects, building and building the tension before it’s release. Then she builds the tension again from the “love” story to the story of the two surviving long enough for a happily ever after. The utilisation of flashbacks to show the true Max and how broken Lucia was compound the neglect the two have given themselves in the years since. They have never come to terms with what happened an in likelihood held it back. Cavani forces the viewer to see their world and to see how Max loses control so quickly upon sight of Lucia.
Bogarde and Rampling are sensational here. So when the script lacks in its translation on multiple occassions. The two can raise their game as actors and convince the audience of their complex, horrendous relationship. Bogarde positively changes in front of us once Lucia is back into his life. For a man who was afraid to be in the daylight as that brought the memories and the fears. He soon becomes emboldened and more like the SS officer he was with the camera, filming the innocent prisoners.
Equally, Rampling provides better performance. Of a character who knows it would just be easier to leave. To go home, yet mentally she crumbles. Her intricate use of her facial features to show a woman who knows she should not, but does so because deep down in her broken mind, it feels so right is devastating. Both shift the tone of their performances and they are a wonder to watch. She is a tragedy all of her own making once her husband leaves to Frankfurt. She is paralysed when it comes to Max.
The right of the cast are frustrating and while we would demand more time with our two leads, to further the story we need the other characters and sadly they are not on par with Rampling and Bogarde.
Cavani’s use of music and art is pitch-perfect for this practically monochromatic picture. The colour is removed from the film. Much like the colour has been removed from the souls of all of our characters. The cheeriness is gone in this post World War II world. When colour does come into the frame, it is a sickly colour, echoing the mind of our characters. They are not well and even worse when together. The use of the brilliant Amedeo Amodio as Bert to dance and show his continued Stockholm syndrome post-war is haunting. His dancing enraptures you as a viewer, it is beautiful and striking. Yet also deflating, this talented man is caught in an endless cycle because of Max and the others. There is no hope for him, he knows it and shows that he cannot even sleep without the chemicals that Max brings him.
The Night Porter is a complicated film to review in modern times due to audiences seeing the influence it had on other films and on pop culture itself. It is a troubling film. But purposely so and for audiences wanting an understanding of cinema, for better or for worse, it is an essential film.
CultFilms presents the 4K restoration of The Night Porter on Blu-ray and Digital 30 November.
In this edition, we have two fascinating interviews with director Liliana Cavani and Charlotte Rampling. Playing at around 30 minutes each, we follow the life and career of Cavani. Her influences and experiences with The Night Porter. With Rampling, we find out her previous experiences with Dirk Bogarde. How he persuaded her despite the roughly translated script. Rampling also goes on to mention how much influence and affection she has for him as a fellow actor and a mentor. These are a joy to watch and a great inclusion from Cult Films.
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