With the runaway success, and unstoppable buzz of 50 Shades of Grey, I rented “The Night Porter” to revisit another sadomasochistic romance. Liliani Cavani’s 1974 film is very controversial, even today.
It’s set in 1957 Vienna where Max, a hotel night porter, and Lucia, a conductor’s wife, inadvertently meet again for the first time since WWII. Back then he was an SS officer and she was a teenager. He plucked her out of a crowd of prisoners and began to torture/rape her. She developed feelings for him, maybe what you’d classify as Stockholm Syndrome, and didn’t hesitate to resume their sadomasochistic relationship.
Max works at night. He says he feels his shame in the light. Lucia means light. She’s the only thing that brings him joy. Their fortunes have reversed after the war. Max, Dirk Bogarde, was a SS officer, now a lowly hotel clerk, in the middle of his war crimes trial. He has already killed one witness who could’ve testified against him. Lucia, Charlotte Rampling, is now a posh conductor’s wife. She is the only other witness to his crimes. He could easily kill her, but his feelings get the better of him.
At one point Max chains Lucia in his room so his peers (other former SS officers) can’t take her away when he’s at work. One of them, Hans, confronts Lucia and tells her that she should cooperate with them so they can help Max. She doesn’t trust him and says she’s chained because Max doesn’t want them to take her. He laughs and says that a chain wouldn’t stop them if they wanted to. This is true. The real chain keeping them together is their shared sickness, and longing for the past.
Max and Lucia’s relationship puts his peers in danger. They just want to put the past behind them and live quiet respectable lives. Lucia knows them all from the camps and could testify against all of them, destroying everything they so carefully cobbled together. Max and Lucia want to stay together, living in the past, but the present day world will not allow it. Time marches on in the present, you cannot live in the past.
Max and Lucia say they want others to leave them alone so they can live in peace. Modern Germans are constantly reminded of their fascist past in pop culture and in politics. They are only too aware of doing anything that can be remotely viewed as being xenophobic or anti-Semitic. They will never be rid of, of “left alone” in this regard. Jews, in Israel and the world over use the horrors of WWII, and a history of persecution to inform their politics. Endless films, television shows depict their victimization and atrocities suffered at the hands of the Nazis. One of their slogans is “Never Forget.” Therefore they will be linked forever in the world’s consciousness.
Charlotte Rampling is her usual feline self, aloof with an undercurrent of carnal electricity. Dirk Bogarde… What can I say? If Peter O’Toole and Peter Lorre had a child it would be Dirk. Smug, English, with a thinly veiled, vile personality underneath. I love it. He’s an acquired taste.
Many critics at the time, were disgusted and appalled by Cavani’s use of concentration camp prisoners as a backdrop for titillation. Some who actually liked the film, thought the it was an essay on post-war European relations. Me? It definitely has problems. It’s not exactly rooted in reality, and Lucia’s character isn’t really fleshed out (no pun intended). I think it represents the inextricable relationship between Jews, Germany, and its shameful Nazi past. Framing it as a sadomasochistic relationship is interesting, albeit shocking and appalling.