Notorious in its day, The Night Porter is about the sadomasochistic relationship between a concentration camp survivor Lucia (Rampling) and Maximilian (Bogarde) the former Gestapo officer who molested her. Some 15 years after the war the two meet by chance in Vienna. Max is trying to live a quiet and spartan life, passing unnoticed as a hotel porter. He is working nights due to migraines brought on by his aversion to sunlight. Lucia is now the wife of a successful concert conductor who is visiting the city. Fatefully they choose the hotel where Max is working for their stay. Upon meeting he's suspicious and she's terrified, but they are drawn to each other and once Lucia persuades her husband to travel to his next work engagement without her she resumes her relationship with Max.
There is of course a twist. Max is part of a cabal of former high level nazis led by Klaus (Leroy). The group are manipulating war crimes trials serving up minor criminals while eradicating evidence that might implicate them in wartime atrocities. Lucia is seen by another of the group who was present during decadent wartime sex parties in which Max and Klaus were involved. The possibility that a witness survived to implicate them presents a threat to the group. Max denies any knowledge of seeing a survivor, but suspicions have been raised.
This is very much an allegorical film, its main theme being the political and social continuity from pre to post-war Germany (and perhaps by extension Italy). This is a fascinating theme, and the most interesting thing about the film. After Germany was split by the allies many of social, industrial and political structures and figures of the pre-war Germany remained in place despite their strong links to The Third Reich. This led to dissatisfaction and anger among Germany's post war generation who felt that they were one the one hand suffering for the sins of their fathers, but also unable to wrest power from the very people who had led the country down the ruinous path to war. This anger and disaffection led on the one hand to a cultural renaissance that explicitly rejected the established cultural mainstream. German bands like Can, Neu, and Faust were in many ways more radical than the British punk movement. In cinema directors like Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, and R. W. Fassbinder would became the pillars of a New German Cinema of the nineteen seventies. However it also led to the political extremism and eventually the terrorism of the Bader-Meinhoff group, later the Red Army Faction. The dissatisfaction of German youth is not something touched on directly in The Night Porter, but the pervasive and malign influence of National Socialism lurks in every scene.
The film is also an exploration of the psychology of Stockholm syndrome. The term was coined after a hostage situation at a Swedish bank in 1973, and refers to how an oppressed victim or hostage can come to be dependent upon their oppressor, feeling positive feelings and empathy towards them. While Bogarde's former (and in fact current) nazi is not portrayed as particularly sympathetic, neither is Rampling's holocaust survivor. The elegant English actress is given precious little to do except suffer and look like a German film star. Taken as a realistic depiction of sadomasochistic dependency, The Night Porter feels very shallow. Strip away the Nazi element and the film is positively tame in its sexual imagery. And not only in comparison to a recent film like Shame, Nagisa Oshima's 1976 masterpiece Ai No Corrida (aka In The Realm of The Senses) is far more explicit.
At the time of release The Night Porter was strongly criticised, no less than the esteemed critic Roger Ebert called it "as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering". The accusation that Cavani's intent was titillation is interesting (not least coming from the author of Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). I would agree that the theatrical flashbacks to nazi sex parties look a little too much like a Helmut Newton photo-shoot, and I'd also grant that in 1974 memories of World War 2 were more current than now, but this is still an extremely unsexy film (I know, 'thank god' right?). Bogarde was still a handsome leading man, but he is past his matinee idol prime by some years. Rampling is an extraordinary presence, but her ice-cold eyes and androgyny are a long way from that of a traditional Hollywood glamour object.
The Night Porter has often been called the nazisploitation film it's okay to like because it's 'art'. If anything the film's suffocating tastefulness towards its hideous subject matter is actually a problem. Lucia is never identified as Jewish in the film and there are surprisingly few explicit references to the reality of the Holocaust. Additionally there is no real heat or chemistry between Bogarde and Rampling, and although each gives a perfectly fine performance these characters do not really come alive as people rather than symbols. He's a sadist, and she is annoyingly passive, consequently it is difficult to care much about their fates. I also found the accents a distraction, neither Bogarde or Rampling attempt one (she is identified as American at one point).
Unlike Passolini's still utterly revolting Salo, The Night Porter has lost much of its power to shock and provoke and now looks like a curio. A fresh audience is likely to wonder what all the fuss was about. Neither dvd nor blu ray reissue comes with any extras, a great shame because if ever a movie needed some contextualising its this one! It would be fascinating to know what Rampling thinks of the film now. I can't escape the suspicion that the distributor has half an eye on capitalising on the success of 50 Shades of Grey with this release.
EXTRAS None at all on the Blu-ray, which is an utter shame. There are some interviews on the DVD.• Review courtesy of our friends at Chris & Phil Present