DVD: The Night Porter

NightPorterDVDSTUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Liliana Cavani | CAST: Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti, Giuseppe Addobbati
RELEASE DATE: 12/9/14 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: interview with Cavani, documentary “Women of the Resistance”
SPECS: NR | 118 min. | Drama | 1:85: widescreen | mono | English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio   | Video  | Overall 

 

One of the premier arthouse hits of the Seventies, The Night Porter was also one of the most controversial works of that era. The 1974 film has held up remarkably well in the four decades since it was released and remains just as disturbing and provocative today.

The plot revolves around a former S.S. officer, Max (Dirk Bogarde, Ill Meet by Moonlight), who works as a hotel night porter in 1957 Vienna. When he recognizes one of the hotel guests, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling, Never Let Me Go), as an inmate he had an intimate relationship with in a concentration camp, he is both conflicted and excited.

Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter

Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter

A group of ex-Nazis who “execute” anyone who can identify them as such are alarmed by Max’s renewed affair with Lucia. Thus the lovers hole up inside Max’s apartment, knowing that if they emerge they will both be killed.

The Night Porter is a frenzied and fervid tale of l’amour fou that leaves the viewer to decide whether to accept or reject the fou quality of Max and Lucia’s amour. The behavior of the lead characters bothered the film’s critics, who included both puritanical reviewers disturbed by the film’s kinky edge and feminists. Although the relationship is indeed a sadomasochistic one enjoyed by both parties, it is also made clear by Cavani that Max really loves Lucia.

Thus the film easily provokes several arguments, from the essential question, “how could an ex-prisoner resume an affair with a man who was, in effect, her ex-jailer?” to the evergreen “how could a woman have made such a ‘sexist’ film?” The latter point can be argued endlessly, but it is clear throughout that Lucia craves the dangerous aspect of her relationship with Max.

It is also clear that a woman filmmaker could best deal with the most troubling aspects of a relationship like this, as became evident again a year later when Lina Wertmuller made Seven Beauties, another film acknowledging (in a more comic, grotesque way) the use of sex as a bargaining tool in the concentration camps.

Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter

Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter

Whether one finds the film to be a turn-on or distasteful, it is indisputable that the two leads are superb in their roles. Bogarde made a career out of playing seedy aristocrats concealing a “secret,” and he is magnificent here as an individual who wants to leave his past behind (he notes in one key scene that he, unlike his fellow ex-Nazis, prefers working at night because “I have a sense of shame in the light”), but hasn’t left behind his violent impulses (he summarily kills one witness who might identify Lucia) or his kinkier instincts. Bogarde also beautifully conveys Max’s giddiness at having found his “little girl” (his unsettling nickname for Lucia) again.

Rampling has the more difficult role, as Lucia’s motivations for resuming the relationship are never verbally stated (Max is the one who repeatedly tells her he loves her). Her character clearly enjoys being submissive but she also enjoys tormenting him — as is evident in a memorable scene when she ensures that he will step on glass while barefoot.

Clearly the sexual aspect of the relationship is what bonds the two lovers together again, but The Night Porter is not just a kinky tale (although that aspect made the film immensely popular in the Seventies). It is a love story that also explores submission and dominance and is set against the backdrop of one of the 20th century’s most heinous crimes. The fact that the film still has the power to both titillate and infuriate testifies to its power as a tale of love, sex and, most importantly, control (which neither Max nor Lucia have in the final third of the picture).

The Criterion release of the film is supplemented by a stirring TV documentary made in 1965 by Cavani entitled Women of the Resistance. Cavani obtained interviews with a number of heroic women who fought against the Germans, to the extent of injury and prolonged torture. The docu includes several sobering accounts of such attacks in between inspiring stories of the women braving death to undermine the Nazis.

The package also contains two interviews with Cavani, a print one from a 1975 issue of a film magazine and a new on-camera segment shot by Criterion for this release. In the latter case she discusses the fact that she chose to make Lucia the daughter of a socialist rather than a Jew. This results in that particular aspect of the Holocaust being excluded from the film, so that the exploration of the prisoner/jailer relationship can be more directly addressed.

She also gives credit to costume designer Piero Tosi for one of the most memorable aspects in one of the most notorious scenes in the film, namely the suspenders worn by Lucia as she sings and dances topless for SS officers in a flashback. Says Cavani, “It gave the naked breast some meaning.”

She also discusses a visit she made to the Italian censorship board to inquire why the film was banned to viewers under 18 years of age, given that the sex scenes are not graphic and the participants were not nude. The terse answer she received from the president of the board was “She’s on top!” This refers to a moment in one sex scene where Rampling climbs on top of Bogarde while they are having sex on the floor while completely clothed.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”