Seventy-five years ago, World War II ended as did the atrocities of the Holocaust. Since then, a number of films have helped to cement the inhumane cruelty of the Nazis in the minds of subsequent generations, the best known being films like Sophie’s Choice (1982) and Schindler’s List (1993). However, one such example that remains largely forgotten in the minds of the public is Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974). Contrary to how unfamiliar the film is to today’s audiences, The Night Porter is undeniably memorable due to how shocking the film’s imagery is. Arguably, there is no better example of this than the film’s opera sequence.
Spoiler alert: The Night Porter is a film best enjoyed going in with as little knowledge as possible, and further reading will compromise the impact of first-time viewings.
Set in 1957 Vienna, the film follows Max (Dirk Bogarde), a former Nazi and current night porter at the Hotel zur Oper who awaits trial regarding his involvement in the Third Reich. While his former colleagues are convinced Max will be found innocent in the face of insufficient evidence, matters are complicated when he discovers survivor Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) residing at his hotel. Although neither party says anything, both characters immediately recognize each other – Max’s expression of shame met by the look of horror on Lucia’s face.
Roughly twenty-eight minutes into the film, Max and Lucia attend a performance of her husband’s opera. As the rest of the theater’s audience attentively watches the stage, Max stares unflinchingly at Lucia, who glances back with worry. From Max’s profile in close-up, the film cuts to a small group of women, their heads shaved and thin bodies drenched in dirty stripped robes. The women are silent, most of whom peer through the bars on metal bed frames at something off camera. Initially, this shot appears to be a cutaway to the theater’s stage. However, the camera simultaneously dollies right and tilts down to reveal a Nazi Officer, naked on a bed and sexually engaged with a male prisoner from behind.
The shock from this veritable sucker punch stems from how ordinary and unassuming the opera scene is prior to the flashback. Only five cuts are made across the first seventy seconds of the scene, consisting predominately of Lucia and Max exchanging glances amidst the still and crowded theater. It is not the first time that the film employs a flashback to the Holocaust, but when the scene cuts to the flashback, it is not immediately apparent. This is partially due to the prisoners themselves, whose slouched postures, raggedy clothes and still faces evoke the planned and artificial quality of a painting or play. Likewise, the prevalence of the operatic singing throughout the entire sequence also suggests the new shot to be an extension of the play. These elements collectively mislead the audience and make the sight of the Nazi officer more grotesque.
Beyond technical reasons, the connotations of the reveal contributed to the sense of shock. The image of the healthy Nazi sexually engaged before the malnourished members of an oppressed people denotes a perverse sense of humiliation. Despite being the center of attention in the room, the officer shows no acknowledgment of the prisoners as if implying that they are so insignificant as not to warrant concern. Similarly, the hopeless expressions on the prisoners’ faces and their lack of action (they easily outnumber the occupied officer) reiterates the extreme severity of their degradation by the Nazis. This is further reiterated by the male prisoner’s simultaneous masturbation, an act of gleaning pleasure out the dire situation he and the other prisoners are trapped in.
The flashback continues as Max, fully clothed in his uniform, enters the room. The camera dollies and pans from the engaged Nazi officer to reveal Lucia watching from two beds away. Max examine Lucia before motioning for her to leave the room with him. Alone, Lucia now has her hands bound above her head as Max lays his hands upon her vulnerable body. From his closeup, the camera pans right to show Max slowly thrusting his index and middle fingers in and out of his captive’s mouth.
Although not as graphic as the initial reveal of the flashback, Max’s gesture towards Lucia also conjures up similar symbolism: the humiliation and objectification of the Jewish people, bound and helpless. However, this continuation of the flashback proves just as unsettling as the initially reveal. Whereas one in her position might try to resist or show strong emotions at Max’s violating actions, Lucia instead maintains a calm, almost blank expression and never breaks eye contact with her captor. Filmed almost entirely in closeup, this subjugation feels voluntary, intimate and very sexual – an appalling contrast to the horrors with which the Jewish people had to face.
Little else happens in the opera sequence, but at this point viewers need pause to process the emotional high just witnessed. Through a combination of misdirection and perverse connotation, the audience is left feeling just as a violated as the characters on screen, if not more so. While it is not the last time the film presents such provocative scenes, the opera sequence perfectly encapsulates why The Night Porter remains unforgettable to those who have seen it.