The Night Porter
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|The Night Porter|
Italian promotional poster
|Directed by||Liliana Cavani|
|Produced by||Robert Gordon Edwards
Esa De Simone
|Written by||Liliana Cavani|
|Music by||Daniele Paris|
|Distributed by||The Criterion Collection|
3 April 1974
1 October 1974
The Night Porter (Italian: Il portiere di notte) is a 1974 cult classic art film by Italian director Liliana Cavani, starring Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling featuring elements of Nazisploitation. Its themes of sexual and sadomasochistic obsession made it controversial at the time of release. The Umbrella DVD release describes it as "an intense power-play, piercing the darkness of guilt and pleasure...remains a riveting exploration of the depths of the human condition." 
It is 1957, 12 years after World War II. Maximilian Theo Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde), a former Nazi SS officer who had pretended to be a doctor in order to be able to take sensational photographs in the concentration camps, and Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling), a concentration camp survivor who had an ambiguous sadomasochistic relationship with Aldorfer. Flashbacks show Max tormenting Lucia, but also acting as her protector.
Lucia, now married to an orchestra conductor, meets Max again by chance. He is now the night porter at a Vienna hotel and a reluctant member of a group of former S.S. comrades who have been carefully destroying documents and "filing away" witnesses to clear all their names. Nazis, attempting to cover up their past by wiping out witnesses to their wartime activities. Max has an upcoming show trial for his war crimes. One of the group, Hans Folger (Gabriele Ferzetti), accuses Max of wanting to live 'hidden away like a church mouse'. Max says that he does want to remain hidden but that he is still with them in spirit. Images of the past (the concentration camp) punctuate the present narrative with urgent frequency, and suggest that Lucia survived by being Max’s plaything. In an iconic scene, Lucia sings a Marlene Dietrich song "Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte" ("If I could make a wish") to the concentration camp guards while wearing pieces of an SS uniform, and Max "rewards" her with the severed head of a male inmate who had been bullying her, a reference to Salome.
Lucia's very existence is a threat to Max, because she could testify against him at the trial. Max goes to see a former Nazi collaborator, Mario (Ugo Cardea), who knows Lucia is still alive, and suggests they go fishing together; Max murders him to protect his secret. After Lucia's husband leaves for another city, Max and Lucia soon fall back into their sadomasochistic relationship which eventually threatens them both. She and Max spend time together renewing their past lovemaking in a different hotel (Max has his Nazi jacket hanging in the cupboard and Lucia has bought a negligee like the one she wore in the concentration camp), Max confesses to the Countess (Isa Miranda), another guest at his hotel who seems to have a similar Nazi past, that he has found his "little girl" again. He tells the story of the severed head from the concentration camp. The Countess tells him he is insane; Max replies that they are both 'in the same boat'. Folger has Max spied on by a youth who works at the hotel; he is seen watching by Max from the apartment where he has locked Lucia up. Max and Lucia have just played a S&M game in which Lucia smashed a perfume bottle which cut Max's foot and Max crushed her hand underfoot against the same broken glass.
Max continues to work nights at his hotel night porter job but the police come to interview him about the murder of Mario. Max is spending days with Lucia at his apartment and sleeping little. Folger visits Lucia, who has been attached to a long chain by Max, ostensibly to prevent the other SS officers taking her away. He wants her to testify against Max, and also says that Max is ill. He suggests that Lucia must also be ill to allow herself to be in this position. Lucia sends him away, saying she is there of her own free will.
The SS officers are infuriated at Max for hiding the key witness and also because he says he will not go through with the trial, which calls 'a farce.' He says that he works as a night porter because he has a sense of shame in the night. He returns to Lucia telling her that the police questioned him and others at the hotel about Lucia being missing, on her husband's orders, but no suspicion fell on Max. He has, however, quit his night porter job. The SS officers cut off the supply of food from a nearby grocers. Max and Lucia barricade the door to the apartment and ration their food. Max is shot in the hand by Klaus (Philippe Leroy) while taking rubbish out the back. He and Lucia continue to rot as their state of living descends. Max makes some attempts to seek help by phoning one of his old hotel friends, but the friend refuses to help. Max also implores the downstairs neighbor for help, but it turns out that Adolph (Nino Bignamini), the youth who had spied on him earlier, is there. Adolph will only get food for them if Max lets Lucia go. Max retreats again to the apartment where Lucia is almost unconscious from lack of nutrition. Meanwhile, one of the SS cuts the wires, making the electricity cut off in Max's apartment. Max dresses Lucia, and clad in his Nazi uniform, they both exit the building and drive away in Max's car. The SS car follows. Max's car is then seen parked on a bridge. Max and Lucia are walking away from the camera in the dawn light. Two shots ring out, and the doomed lovers fall dead.
- Dirk Bogarde - Max
- Charlotte Rampling - Lucia
- Philippe Leroy - Klaus
- Gabriele Ferzetti - Hans Folger
- Giuseppe Addobbati - Stumm
- Isa Miranda - Countess Stein
- Nino Bignamini - Adolph
- Marino Masé - Atherton
- Amedeo Amodio - Bert
- Piero Vida - Day Porter
- Geoffrey Copleston - Kurt
- Manfred Freyberger - Dobson
- Ugo Cardea - Mario
- Hilda Gunther - Greta
The film depicts the political continuity between wartime Nazism and post-war Europe and the psychological continuity of characters locked into compulsive repetition of the past. On another level it deals with the psychological condition known as Stockholm Syndrome. The movie also raises the issue of sleeper Nazi cells and their control, and possibly hints at what could have spurred the 1960s reaction to the Red Army Faction (aka Baader-Meinhof).
More basically, it explores two people in an uneasy yet inextricably bound relationship within the context of a greater political malaise during and after World War II. Lucia (Rampling) is not specifically identified as Jewish but as the daughter of a socialist. Her name may be a pun of "light" and St. Lucia, the patron saint of the blind. Max seems to have a guilt complex, given he's afraid of the light, and lives a modest lifestyle after the war. Allusions to sexual ambivalence can be seen in his relationship with the epicene male ballet dancer.Template:Citation ded
In responses to The Night Porter, Cavani was both celebrated for her courage in dealing with the theme of sexual transgression and, simultaneously, castigated for the controversial manner in which she presented that transgression: within the context of a Nazi Holocaust narrative. The film has been accused of mere sensationalism: film critic Roger Ebert calls it "as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering." Philip Canby, another prominent critic, called it 'romantic pornography' and 'a piece of junk' on its first release. Given the film's dark and disturbing themes and a somewhat ambiguous moral clarification at the end, The Night Porter has tended to divide audiences. It is, however, the film for which Cavani is best known.
- The Night Porter, Umbrella Entertainment, sleeve notes.
- Ebert, Roger (February 10, 1975). "The Night Porter". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2008-12-23.
- The Night Porter at the Internet Movie Database
- The Night Porter at AllMovie
- "Synopsis". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2008-12-23.
- Insdorf, Annette (Jan 11, 2000). "Criterion Collection Essay". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 2008-12-23.
- Scherr, Rebecca (February 2000). "The Uses of Memory and the Abuses of Fiction: Sexuality in Holocaust Fiction and Memoir". Other Voices, Volume 2.1. Retrieved 2008-12-23.