Any film that depicts a sadomasochistic love affair between a Nazi officer and a concentration-camp inmate is deliberately courting controversy. The Night Porter, released in 1974 but set primarily in 1957, takes that noxious idea even further, suggesting a passion so deep that it can’t be denied even many years later. Words that appear in the opening paragraph of Roger Ebert’s contemporaneous one-star review include “nasty,” “lubricious,” “despicable,” “obscene,” and “trash.” All the same, those looking for lurid thrills from this artsy exercise in exploitation will likely be disappointed. One particular scene has a certain grotesque power (virtually every iconic image from the film derives from those few minutes), but director Liliana Cavani’s approach to her shocking subject matter is largely tasteful to the point of tedium. Even the S&M feels bizarrely half-hearted, more dutiful than kinky.
It’s a shame that few people manage to see The Night Porter with no foreknowledge of what it’s about, as Cavani (who co-wrote the screenplay with Italo Moscati) intentionally delays revealing the shared history between Max (Dirk Bogarde), the eponymous night porter at a hotel in Vienna, and a newly arrived guest, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), who’s accompanying her husband (Marino Masé), a renowned American conductor, on his European tour. Both Max and Lucia visibly freak out when they see each other in the hotel lobby, and much of the film’s first half shows each of them sitting isolated in darkness, their blank stares triggering flashback memories of Max raping and abusing Lucia during the war. Before long, Lucia has abandoned her husband and resumed her hideously co-dependent relationship with Max, who professes his undying love for her and even seems willing to let her turn the tables to some extent.
It’s possible to imagine a film that seriously explores the warped psychological foundation of such a union, depicting both parties as fearsomely complex individuals whose forbidden desires can’t be neatly categorized. That film would be pretty damn bracing. The Night Porter, however, is not that film. Cavani treats Max and Lucia as empty abstractions, especially when they’re rolling around together; the film’s sex scenes carefully avoid anything that might be genuinely discomfiting, even during the Holocaust flashbacks. Max punches Lucia in the face a number of times, but always in anger and frustration, not lust. Only in the most iconic scene, which sees Lucia performing a sultry cabaret number for SS officers—wearing elbow-length leather gloves, her bare breasts framed by suspenders, inmate-short hair peeking out from beneath a Nazi cap—does The Night Porter briefly provoke the wildly conflicting emotions that might justify its inflammatory thesis.
Furthermore, huge chunks of the movie just make no sense. Cavani ludicrously imagines an entire group of former Nazis who spend their time conducting mock trials for each other, ostensibly so that they can defend their actions during the war and achieve a sense of internal peace. To that end, they’ve apparently been seeking out “witnesses,” meaning Holocaust survivors, who are persuaded to testify against their tormentors and then killed. That’s dumb almost beyond reason, but necessary in order to precipitate the movie’s third act, in which Max and Lucia hole up in Max’s apartment for days, long after they run out of food, while Max’s Nazi chums patiently wait for them to emerge so they can abduct Lucia and get Max’s trial started. Their slow starvation would seem to mirror the deprivation endured by Holocaust victims, but Cavani does nothing to bolster this idea, treating their mutual suffering as doomed romanticism. The film’s final shot is almost pluperfectly meaningless. In the end, The Night Porter is too bland even to hate.
The Night Porter is available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.