The Night Porter (1974)

In the first part of this essay series, I looked at two of the most influential, if controversial postwar films, Visconti’s The Damned and Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Their depictions of wartime political (and personal) corruption paired with themes of sexual deviancy became a mainstay of ‘70s arthouse cinema during a time when European directors seemed determined to push the envelopes of cinematic sex, violence, and general depravity seemingly as far as they could. Italian director Liliana Cavani produced one of the most notorious examples of this with her film Il portiere di notte (1974) aka The Night Porter, though much of her career in general has been concerned with cinematic explorations of WWII.

She essentially got her start making television documentaries for the Italian network RAI, namely Storia del III Reich (1962-63) aka History of the Third Reich. Comprised of four, 50-minute episodes, this brief series was “the first of its kind in Italy,” according to Giorgio Bertellini’s The Cinema of Italy (204). Bertellini writes, “Her reconstruction of the history of National Socialism draws from films she found in French, West German and American film archives, as well as from propaganda manifestos and George Grosz’s grotesquely stylized cartoons” (204).

Cavani also went on to helm the similarly-themed documentary La donna nella Resistenza (1965) aka Women of the Resistance, the only film of its kind about the role of Italian women in the Resistance. Cavani interviewed a wide variety of women — from couriers to fighters — and reminds her likely conservative Italian viewers that their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters took an active role in wartime resistance: for example, she shares statistics that roughly 4,000 women were arrested and tortured for their participation in the Resistance, 600 were killed, and 6,000 were deported to camps and prisons in Germany.

These interviews seemed to have a profound effect on Cavani and in her introduction to the documentary for Criterion’s Blu-ray release of The Night Porter, she relates the story of a woman she interviewed who was transported to Dachau for her role in the Resistance, but survived. To Cavani’s surprise, the woman returned to visit the area every single year. This theme of being unable to completely move on from past traumas is felt strongly in the documentary, as is the amoral aspect of the survival instinct that was revealed to many of the survivors during their ordeal, both themes of The Night Porter.


The Night Porter (1974)

Though Cavani was born in 1933 and effectively grew up during the war years, the experience of making these two documentaries was perhaps the beginning of her fascination with fascist horrors. In The Gaze and the Labyrinth: The Cinema of Liliana Cavani, she recounts her experience making the documentary series. “The Germans loved to record every event on film, and they did it well. Hitler and his entourage loved cinema. My editor and I saw rolls on the Lager and on the Russian campaign. One day we had to stop because we became sick. When the artists of the duecento attempted to paint the inferno, they were naive. Clearly, there has been a progress in cruelty, in fact a true escalation. For whom did those cameramen think they were leaving those images? For monsters?” (84).

She went on to set one of her first films, I cannibali (1970) aka The Year of the Cannibals, in a fictionalized fascist country. This adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone follows a young woman’s (Britt Ekland) struggle to have her dead brother buried. Because he is considered an enemy of the state, the government won’t allow it. In fact, the countryside is littered with many such disgraced bodies. Ultimately an arthouse film with little in the way of a linear plot structure or dialogue, Cavani took the experimental elements of The Year of the Cannibals and applied it to a more rigorous structure with what is widely regarded as her masterpiece, The Night Porter.

This 1974 film straddles the border between exploitation and arthouse and, alongside Pasolini’s Saló o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, is one of the most controversial works of Italian cinema. In the late ‘50s, former SS Officer Max Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde) works as the night porter of a hotel. He still maintains a connection to a Nazi sleeper cell attempting to maintain their old ways with strict rules and secret tribunals. Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling), once a concentration camp prisoner and Max’s victim, comes to stay at the hotel with her composer husband (Marino Masé). Max and Lucia recognize each other and almost immediately resume the sadomasochistic sexual relationship they had in the camp.

Unfortunately Lucia is recognized by the sleeper cell, who decide that she knows too much and must be executed. Max barricades Lucia and himself inside his apartment, consensually chaining her to the wall. The escalating violence of their sexual relationship climaxes in a mutual suicide pact. They begin starving to death and ultimately attempt to flee, only to be gunned down by Nazi bullets. The inability to escape the trauma of the past sucks them into a loop where the lines between victim and perpetrator disappear. The only release is death, which they go to, if not willingly, fully aware.

The Night Porter (1974)

This intentionally controversial film wasn’t overwhelmingly popular with critics upon its release — the majority of them viewed it as little more than tasteless, offensive smut — but it has come to be regarded as a challenging cult classic that examines the often contradictory nature of desire, victimhood, and memory. Much of the film’s controversy is due to the sexual, sadomasochistic relationship between a Holocaust survivor and the former Nazi who both victimized and protected her in a concentration camp. In Rebecca Scherr’s essay “The Uses of Memory and the Abuses of Fiction: Sexuality in Holocaust Fiction and Memoir” for Other Voices, she wrote, “In narrative accounts of Holocaust testimony, explicit discussions of sexuality and eroticism are almost nonexistent. If the theme does occur in eyewitness accounts, it is often the enforced lack of sexuality that is the object of commentary.”

Sexualizing the Holocaust and the experience of survivors is a provocative act at best and deeply problematic at worst. Scherr wrote, “Trauma, displacement and incarceration, starvation and its consequent exhaustion, overwork, the segregation of men and women, the destruction of family units, the shaving of body hair, the cessation of menstruation, the constant presence and threat of death—all of these factors conspired to strip the individual of any means towards imagining oneself a being, human and sexual.” Certainly other films during the same period began to examine the Holocaust in a sexual light, though most of these belong firmly in the exploitation genre and came to be known as Nazisploitation films; while The Night Porter is an erotic drama, it doesn’t quite reach the full excesses of exploitation cinema.

The truly exploitative elements of The Night Porter come from moments of voyeurism, spectacle, and performance. Cavani sets up a number of set pieces that do little more than highlight the obscene theatricality of public eroticism: such as Max and Lucia engaging in theoretically consensual sex acts together before a group of emaciated camp prisoners; or Lucia’s mock cabaret number, where she sings “Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte” (“If I could make a wish”) — popularized by Marlene Dietrich — while topless, wearing only the hat, pants, and suspenders of a Nazi uniform. In general, the cabaret scene has come to signify decadence, particularly in ’70s and ‘80s cinema. Beginning with The Damned and made mainstream by Cabaret, Cavani transforms it into its most transgressive.

The film is also rife with references to art, performance, and spectatorship. Lucia’s husband is a conductor and she and Max have an anxiety-fueled run in at his production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote. In addition to Lucia’s musical scene at the camp, a male ballet dancer performs for the Nazis, something he later privately resumes in the hotel for Max. Even the underground Nazi cell has an element of theatricality with their mock trials and codified appearances. Cavani proves that there are scant steps between play-acting, theater, ritual, and personal transformation, and even Max and Lucia change costume as they revert to old roles.

The Night Porter (1974)

The voyeuristic aspect is also of major importance to their relationship, which even began with an audience. They are shown to be surrounded by camp inhabitants whose appearance contrasts dramatically with Lucia’s youthful loveliness: they are old, starving, dirty, and sick. In her essay for Criterion’s DVD release of the film, Gaetana Marrone wrote, “Max is first identified while filming Lucia, naked, upon her arrival at the concentration camp. He focuses on a close up of her terrified stare, as she turns away from the bright light aimed at her. The viewer seems no longer to be watching a film but rather to be witnessing a horrific event as it unfolds. Here, as elsewhere in The Night Porter, the complicity of cinema with transgression and voyeuristic compulsion becomes a subject of the film itself.”

Cavani seems more interested in examining the often inherently transgressive nature of desire itself rather than the Holocaust in literal, historical terms. Marcus wrote, “It could indeed be argued that the Lager setting serves as a mere pretext, a laboratory for Cavani to study the workings of human sexuality pushed to the breaking point” (52). The relationship between Max and Lucia is an uncomfortable, complicated one that includes the dichotomies of sadist and masochist, perpetrator and victim, Nazi and Holocaust survivor. As Cavani first explored in Women of the Resistance, the act of survival often necessitates shedding conventional morals and values, which plays an important part here. Cavani herself said the film is based on a “pseudomasochistic story that is justified by the extreme situation in which both man and woman find themselves. It is the detonator that allows them to express themselves” (Marrone 82).

Perhaps Cavani’s most direct parallel can be found in her contemporary, Lina Wertmüller, another Italian director fond of exploring both political and sexual themes, albeit with far more surreal humor and sense of anarchy than Cavani. After serving as assistant director to Fellini on 8 1/2, Wertmüller’s career received acclaim when she embarked on a productive collaboration with actor Giancarlo Giannini in the ‘70s with films like Mimí metallurgico ferito nell’onore (1972) aka The Seduction of Mimi, Film d’amore e d’anarchia, ovvero: stamattina alle 10, in via dei Fiori, nella nota casa di tolleranza.. (1973) aka Love and Anarchy, and Travolti da un insolito destino nell’azzurro mare d’agosto (1974) aka Swept Away.

Love and Anarchy — whose original Italian title translates to Film of Love and Anarchy, Or, ‘This Morning at 10 in Villa dei Fiori in the Well-Known Brothel…’ — may not be as concerned with perverse sexuality as earlier films like The Damned, The Conformist, or The Night Porter, but it is certainly sexually explicit. Set during the ‘20s when the National Fascist Party took control of Italy, Tunin (Giancarlo Giannini) learns of the death of one of his friends who planned to assassinate Mussolini and Tunin takes it upon himself to complete this task. He travels to Rome from his home in the countryside and meets Salomè (Mariangela Melato), the madam of a brothel who wants to help him. While Tunin and Salomè plan the assassination, Tunin falls in love with a young whore, Tripolina (Lina Polito).

Love and Anarchy (1973)

It is ultimately Tripolina’s love for Tunin that botches their plans and causes him to needlessly sacrifice himself. This comic tragedy was apparently based on the story of a real-life man from the countryside who attempted to assassinate Mussolini, failed, and was executed, but was given no attention by the government or press. The ending of the film — which shows a brief fascist report, which reads “This Morning at 10 in Villa dei Fiori in the Well-Known Brothel…” — directly references the fascist need to manipulate truth, media, and even history.

In Giorgio Bertellini’s The Cinema of Italy, he wrote, “The unnamed Sardinian peasant is not the only historical source for Tunin’s character. Anteo Zamboni, whom Tunin comes to replace in Salomè’s affections, and who serves as the protagonist’s double in the preamble of the story, was a real anarchist who was killed by a mob for allegedly firing on Mussolini during an official visit to Bologna in 1926. In remembering Zamboni, Wertmüller’s film becomes doubly epitaphic in the neorealist sense, rescuing two anti-Fascist martyrs from the oblivion to which history had consigned them” (185). Like the early films of Pasolini such as Accattone, Mamma Roma, La ricotta, and The Hawks and the Sparrows, Wertmüller uses unconventional heroes who exist on the margins of society: peasants, criminals, and whores.

Wertmüller was harshly criticized for her confrontational, ribald depictions of sexuality, but this Rabelaisian surface layer provides a colorful contrast to the film’s steadily building sense of anxiety and impending violence. Like Pasolini’s tragic heroes, Tunin is absurd and chaotic, destined to fail. Wertmüller adds a bitter sense that all political action is ineffectual and perhaps also irrational. Both Tunin and Salomè are not driven to kill Mussolini because of their moral convictions; rather they become involved in order to avenge dead friends and lovers.

She tread even more controversial ground on her next film with Giannini, Pasqualino Settebellezze (1975) aka Seven Beauties. If Love and Anarchy depicted unlikely heroes, Seven Beauties takes things to an entirely new extreme and is set a few years later, in the midst of war. The film’s protagonist, Pasqualino (Giannini), starts out as a common criminal, but murders a pimp when the man turns Pasqualino’s sister into a prostitute. He dismembers the body and attempts to get rid of it, but is picked up by the police and sent to an asylum, where he rapes another patient. He joins the Army to escape, but deserts and is put in a concentration camp by the Germans, where he will do anything to survive.

Seven Beauties (1975)

The grotesque female commandant (Shirley Stoler) of the camp allows him to seduce her and he is given the status of kapo in exchange for sexual favors. He is also asked to make increasingly difficult decisions — such as selecting six prisoners to die so that the commandant doesn’t have the entire barrack killed — while the camp sinks further into misery and depravity.

Despite its graphic and brutal nature and subject matter that includes genocide, rape, murder, suicide, sadomasochism, and sexual exploitation, this film was perhaps incredibly nominated for several Academy Awards — Wertmüller was the first woman ever nominated for Best Director — and received widespread critical acclaim. It is one of the grimmest of black comedies of the decade and makes light of everything from war —in its newsreel-style opening sequence, which takes a comic turn — to Italian machismo, as Pasqualino starts out on this path because he’s an opportunistic bully who tries to control his seven sisters (and his mother).

In actuality, Pasqualino is nothing more than a fool. He possesses a variety of unlikable character traits, but somehow comes through the film as charismatic. Like some of the characters in The Night Porter, he’s concerned with survival, above all, at the complete expense of morality, though it’s clear that he wasn’t a particularly moral person to begin with. His main objectives are to uphold what he views as his honor as a man, which extends to the female members of his family, and to pursue all the pleasures of the flesh.

Despite scenes of graphic sex, mass murder, and concentration camp horrors, it is actually Pasqualino’s unchecked appetites and lack of a clear moral system that makes Seven Beauties so troubling. Psychologist, writer, and Holocaust survivor Bruno Bettelheim wrote an impassioned critique of the film for the August 2, 1976 issue of The New Yorker, entitled “Surviving,” in which he argued that although Seven Beauties is undeniably a work of art, its cruel, amoral tone is a cause for real concern. He said, “These audiences seem to accept the completely erroneous implication that to survive in the camps one had to act as if one were vermin, as Pasqualino does in the film” (32).

Seven Beauties (1975)

Bettelheim, like some critics from the period, had trouble separating a historically accurate depiction of the Holocaust with Wertmüller’s blackly comic, nihilistic, and irreverent look at the same. Bettelheim wrote, “While the horrors of war, Fascism, and the concentration camp are clearly and overtly presented, covertly they are much more effectively denied, because what we watch is a farce played in a charnel house, and, furthermore, because survive despite evil and survival through doing evil seem to be in the end all important, regardless of the form that either the evil or the survival takes” (33). Unlike films like The Damned or The Night Porter, perverse sexuality is not the film’s centerpiece, but merely a means to an end. It is this sense of cruelty that Bettelheim finds so discomfiting. He explained, “I believe that consciously Wertmüller rejects Fascism, machismo, and the world of the concentration camps but that unconsciously she is fascinated by their power, brutality, amorality—their rape of man” (32).

While Wertmüller would later return to a WWII setting with films like Fatto di sangue fra due uomini per causa di una vedova. Si sospettano moventi politici (1978) aka Blood Feud and Ninfa plebea (1996) aka The Nymph, Seven Beauties and its exploration of the “rape of man” belongs in a rare category alongside such late ‘60s and ‘70s films as The Damned, The Conformist, The Night Porter, and Salò that explore fascism alongside themes of survival, amorality, and sexuality. Marcus wrote, “For Wertmüller, indeed, the Lager can give birth to no possible narrative of human redemption — only survival tales of the worst social Darwinist kind could ever be delivered from its horrid depths” (59).

The intersection of sexuality and fascism found in art house films from Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, and Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties, among others, helped paved the way for a new kind of war cinema. Not only did filmmakers find novel, confrontational ways to explore WWII themes, but the war itself often exceeded the bounds of history and became symbolic of something more: where Nazism represents absolute evil, the Holocaust stands as an example of the depths of human perversion, and survival does not necessarily equate redemption.