At a faraway glance, Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter, 1974) seems like the unlikeliest film to be praised for its artistic merits. The story of a former Nazi rekindling a sadomasochistic relationship with a former prisoner seems scandalous, not to mention transgressive to our normal sensibilities. Film critics Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael dismissed the film as vile, repugnant, pornographic, and refused to consider any possible deeper meaning. If we took every bit of criticism leveled against it at face value, we might dismiss it altogether. As a member of the viewing audience, I believe in coming to my own conclusions without considering the bias of others. As a writer, I feel it’s my duty to approach any subject with objectivity, and make honest observations and inferences on what’s presented before me. I’ve come to loathe lazy, vapid critiques from those who have forgotten that art should provoke a response from its audience. No matter what the reaction might be, if something challenges you in any way, it’s done his job. I find that the most abrasive content can possess great value beneath the surface. Art is subjective and open to interpretation, and there is no definitive answer.
My own thoughts on art and aesthetics aside, director Liliana Cavani’s tour de force remains almost unchallenged in its stark depictions of Stockholm syndrome, regression and sadomasochism. The Night Porter is art that challenges us. As an audience, we find ourselves questioning our own values and sensibilities. The Holocaust, unquestionably the greatest human tragedy of our time, its aftermath, and the effects it has on those involved is the experience that we’re subjected to. Approaching this subject matter in the form of a relationship between master and servant lies at the core of human experience. There are very few things more realistic than trauma, and the struggle to overcome it is sometimes next to impossible. We attempt to cope, and strive to keep our troubled past as distant as possible. However, things aren’t that simple, and it’s these events in our lives that shape and make us who we are.
“I was born alive, isn’t that punishment enough?” – Clive Barker, Cabal
The Night Porter follows Max Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde), a former member of the SS who works at a hotel in Vienna. Taking place after the war in 1957, the location is indicative of the world in which Max wants to exist—one that’s sheltered and separated from the rest of society, and as his old comrades describe, allows him to “live as a church mouse.” As Max goes about his occupational duties, he encounters an apparition from his past, a former concentration camp inmate named Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), with whom he once had a relationship. Now married to a successful opera conductor, it appears she’s attempted to put the trauma of her past behind her. Meanwhile, Max’s former SS colleagues have begun assembling evidence of his past as a war criminal, to hold a mock trial and absolve him of his past guilt.
Some of the earliest images told through flashback, establish Max and Lucia’s past with one another. These scenes are cold, perverse, and place the films audience into the role of voyeur. A scene of Max, filming Lucia’s naked body while shining a light on her as she recoils, is indicative of the relationship the film shares with its audience. Stripping down the barrier between art and observer, Max’s camera mirror’s Cavani’s that captures these sensational images that we witness. Eerily similar to Pasolini’s use of sexuality in Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom,1975) a year later, the eroticism of the scene in completely absent. It ultimately becomes the master viewing a servant in a moment of subjugation and commodification of the human body. As Max films Lucia, we have a flashback within a flashback, which depicts childhoods end. Lucia is briefly seen on a Ferris wheel during a carefree time, we then hear gunshots ring out off screen, possibly alluding to the outbreak of war. This inevitably gives way to Lucia, naked, huddling in the corner as Max torments her with a pistol, asserting his control over her.
As the film reverts to present day, the confined location of the hotel hints at the aspect of closeted homosexuality. This is also where the first steps are taken in elevating the films’ sexual nature with the high end of art. We’re introduced to Bert (Amedeo Amodio), one of Max’s wartime comrades who harbors strong emotions towards him. As Bert performs a private ballet dance for Max in a hotel suite, a flashback is shown of him purpatrating a similar act for a group of SS members far away from prying eyes. Cavani made no attempt to hide her thoughts that homosexuality and the Nazi regime were strongly intertwined with one another. In an interview conducted in 1974, she spoke candidly about the subject, “When I researched the Nazi period, I came to the conclusion that the SS was a homosexual cult—either consciously or unconsciously, realized or not realized…they were, in reality, the imaginings of a choreographer.”
The subject of high art continues within the confines of an opera house, as Lucia’s husband conducts a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. As the two briefly gaze upon each other, we’re shown the beginning of the pair’s sexual chemistry through flashback. As the music maintains its composure, Max is seen placing his hand into Lucia’s mouth, simulating fellatio. Max than dresses her in a smock, the same way a child might play with a doll, which furthers Lucia’s role as plaything for Max’s desires he holds towards her. As the flashback ends, Lucia gazes back at the seat where Max was sitting, only to find it empty. It’s this presence of absence that possibly hints at Lucia’s longing for the past, and a possible affliction of Stockholm syndrome.
The next day, she’s shown buying a dress in a shop eerily similar to the one she was once dressed in as a prisoner. This begins the start of her regression towards returning to Max, and forsaking her newfound role in a common marriage with her conductor husband. The first confrontation in the hotel between Max and Lucia is a firm indication of the type of relationship they once had with one another. Meeting in Lucia’s darkened room, their encounter turns violent, with Max striking her several times, screaming at her as to why she’s returned. Then, as if one shifts speeds on a record player, the two embrace and profess their affection for one another. In a film that continually blurs the lines between violence and love, there’s no other moment more than this one that exemplifies the themes of sadomasochism that Cavani conveys to her audience. It’s both Incendiary and provocative, and pleasure and pain almost become indistinguishable.
At last, Lucia abandons the posh life of her marriage to return to Max and the world they once shared. As Lucia crawls into bed with him in a sparse apartment, Max removes a pair of earrings from her and lets them drop to the floor. This subtle action is firmly entrenched with symbolism, as Lucia has now regressed and left privilege behind. Within the apartment Lucia’s regression furthers, with her behavior mimicking that of a playful child. She locks her self in the bathroom and breaks glass on the floor, leading to Max accidentally cutting his foot. As Lucia washes the blood away, which could be interpreted as Christ washing the feet of his disciples, a biblical aspect related to a savior that will unfold at a future moment.
If Max’s occupation at the hotel reflects his desire to remain hidden from the world, then it’s one character in particular who comes to represent his collogues’ still holding on to their sordid past—The Countess Stein (Isa Miranda). Immobile in her hotel suite, she’s the perfect representation of stagnation. With her real name, Erica, being revealed later in the third act, this makes for an interesting subject of analysis. “Erika” was a popular marching tune of the Waffen SS, and was featured in both Schindlers List (1993) and a television movie about the Warsaw Ghetto revolt entitled Uprising (2001). Taking this into consideration, she ultimately becomes the past that Max’s comrades are desperately holding onto, and one that’s withering away.
As Max tells Erica of his reunion with Lucia, whom he refers to as his ‘little girl’, he recounts a story that he describes as “not a love story, but biblical one.” The final flashback, which also contains the imagery most associated with The Night Porter. Lucia, topless wearing opera gloves and an SS cap, sings Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte (If I Could Wish For Something), a song composed by Freidrich Hollander. There’s a bit of irony in Lucia singing this song in particular. Hollander, though a successful composer in the days of the Weimar Republic, fled Germany in 1933 because of his Jewish descent. The song, which was once performed by Marlene Dietrich, contains a passage that seems to predict Lucia’s current situation with Max: “If I were too happy, I’d have nostalgia for my sadness.” As the performance ends, the biblical aspect that Max alluded to takes form, as he presents her with the severed head of a prisoner who tormented her, a la Salome. It allows the audience to understand their old relationship a bit better. Max assumed the role of a protector, shielding his ‘little girt’ from harms way.
If the previous content of the film had impacted the audience in any way, then the third act is one that undermines our preconceptions of good and evil. With Lucia now walled inside Max’s apartment, his former SS colleagues wish for her to testify against him at the upcoming mock trial, which means “removing” her as evidence. As Max meets with his former colleagues, he dismisses the trial as a farce, and a game for freaks. It’s also during this meeting where Cavani separates Max from the herd. He tells Bert about his desire to work at night due to his feelings of shame in the daylight. While this doesn’t absolve Max from his past, it establishes his guilty conscience. It’s also a stark contrast to his former colleagues, who speak of the SS as the ‘most elite corps in the Third Reich’ and express a desire to have their ranks reinstated. While it serves as an important moment in exploring Max’s character, it also shows the attitudes of certain ex-Nazis in post war Europe. While some felt guilt and remorse, others maintained their loyalty to Hitler and the party long after the war. The organization Max’s colleagues belong to seems to be loosely based on Odessa, an underground Nazi movement formed by fighter pilot and staunch supporter of Hitler, Hans Ulrich Rudel. They would assist several members of the SS escape justice at wars end.
With his loyalty to Lucia far outweighing his former organization, we reach a pivotal moment of the film. We’re plunged into isolation as the pair becomes trapped within Max’s apartment, now besieged by his old comrades in arms. With their food supply cut off, and the couple being forced to ration the remaining items they have, Max and Lucia are pushed to their absolute limits. Even when the power is cut they refuse to cave in to the demands placed upon them by Max’s former colleagues. When going into an analysis of a films conclusion, there always exists personal interpretation. Despite the desolation and futility of the situation at hand, Max and Lucia’s final moments can be seen as an act of defiance in the face of those who refuse to accept guilt. Max places underwear on Lucia, who has almost withered away due to starvation, much like a parent dressing their ‘little girl.’ In the dead of night, the pair leave Max’s apartment. Lucia, wearing a dress similar to one she wore while in the camp, and Max dressed in his full SS uniform. Here is the strongest declaration of Max confessing his past, and Lucia reaching the full state of regression that began when the pair first reunited. As the two drive away, Max briefly looks back at Lucia sitting in the back seat, somewhat indicative of the pair reflecting upon their past. As dawn breaks over a bridge, the two are seen walking away from the camera, side by side. The roles of master and servant are completely erased; the pair stands together as equals. Then, mirroring the scene from earlier in the film with Lucia on the Ferris wheel and gunfire signaling childhood’s end, shots are heard, and the pair fall dead. Cavani’s camera briefly lingers on the fallen pair, as they’ve taken their final curtain call.
It would be an understatement to describe the final moments of The Night Porter as tragic. If one takes anything away from the lifeless bodies of Max and Lucia, it’s a great deal of humanity, and something that affects us on a deeper level. The entirety of the film is just that, humanity. There will always be moments that leave us feeling empty, and art that makes us turn inward for reflection. Liliana Cavani accomplished this task in a way that very few filmmakers ever have before or since. Take a closer look next time you revisit this film, you just might notice something about yourself that you didn’t before.