Criterion Corner: The Night Porter (1974)

We review the 1974 film, The Night Porter.

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While love is usually portrayed as a wonderful and beautiful thing, there can be a dark side—few films have really explored this aspect. Italian director Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter not only broaches this subject, it indulges some of our deepest fantasies and desires. It’s a film about two lovers who become so obsessed with their passion for each other that it decimates every single aspect of their respective lives. In a way, it can be considered the European equivalent to the Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses but filmed in a more art-house manner.

Maximilian Theo Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde) is a former Nazi SS member living in post WWII Germany who happens to encounter Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling) a former prisoner of the concentration camp he oversaw. Thus begins an intriguing relationship that blurs the line between passion and complete insanity. The subject matter of the film was (and still is) a taboo subject. There is a genre of films called “Nazisploitation”, most famously represented by Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, which uses Nazi imagery in combination with sexual content to titillate viewers. The Night Porter has higher aspirations than that, though it has been unfairly lumped into the same category as other, sleazier films.

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Both Bogarde and Rampling put in outstanding performances, and play both characters with deft handling of motivations and actions. They are fanatical and crazed but it never becomes campy or cheesy. The film delves deep into the concept of sadomasochism and even Stockholm Syndrome. It’s never completely clear if either participant in the tryst is in their right mind. One can’t help but sympathize with them though--everyone has been driven mad by love at least once in their life. Because the holocaust is such a sensitive subject, it is hard for people not to view any film about its horror as anything but exploitative. Especially one such as this one, which examines a relationship between a Nazi officer and a camp survivor. There is a lot of emotional baggage to unpack, as it were.

The Night Porter is elegantly filmed, and has an interesting backdrop due to it being a period piece. There is one particular scene that is absolutely transfixing in its composition as it also presented in a surreal manner. The artsy production value does soften the impact somewhat, and gives it a classier atmosphere.  Daniele Paris’ musical score is also wonderful, with a plaintive solo clarinet imparting much of the somber mood.  All of these things combine to make an interesting film about a country coming to terms with the end of a grisly war, obsession, and perhaps in the end, real love.

-Michelle Kisner