Before I go any further: I've found myself confused and unsure of what to think whilst writing this post. I'm not intelligent nor eloquent enough to break down and analyse this film as it should be. If you want a proper analysis that covers all bases with real knowledge/insight then I suggest you read Matthew Dessem's blogpost and the late Roger Ebert's review. They really know what they're talking about and discuss aspects of the film that went over my head. I highly recommend reading those instead of mine, if you're looking for a really good article on the film.
As if watching a young girl looking gaunt, starved, and malnourished in a concentration camp isn't bad enough, we have these scenes of abuse that develop into a sadomasochistic relationship (I would give more information on this but I don't know enough about it - forgive me). But it isn't the pain inflicted on her that is the most disturbing, rather it is the horror of the Holocaust that lurks in the context of the scenes. For example, the scene where Max visits Lucia in her bed chamber (shared by other inmates) and he starts forcing his fingers into her mouth, you can see the emaciated faces of fellow concentration camp prisoners in the background - watching. Seeing these despairing, rotting prisoners whilst this Nazi officer is abusing his "little girl" is disgusting. It's sick. To us, Max is the lowest of the low.
However my opinion changed quite drastically as the picture progressed. My feelings went from viewing Max as a cold-blooded, perverted Nazi, to sick abuser, to nothing more than a pathetic old man. As Lucia's abuser/lover for so long, and to have been parted from her for years after the end of the war, his reunion with her seems to genuinely bring him happiness. Of course this is on a sexual, controlling level but also, I like to think, one of genuine affection. He even says towards the end of the film 'I love her'. I have to give full credit to Bogarde here; his skills as an actor enable us to latch onto something about a barely developed character.
One aspect of the film which I really enjoyed and thought was done well were the first meetings between Max and Lucia at the hotel. They are over-flowing with tension. Max clocks Lucia before she clocks him. When she arrives at the hotel, looking much more grown-up, glamorous, even more beautiful, Max immediately recognises her but he looks as if he wants to disappear - in fact, he hesitates about hiding. We do not know how she will react. Will she scream? Will she reveal his true identity? 'This is the Nazi warden who abused me whilst I was at the concentration camp?' We have no idea, and neither does Max. He looks apprehensive. The meeting is far from what we though it would be though. Lucia looks shocked to the core, giving Max an ice-cold stare, followed by a confused 'What the hell are you doing here?' look. No dialogue is exchanged. But the tension is there in abundance. If Lucia's husband was paying more attention he would have noticed the fright on his wife's face instantly and the recognition between the two.
Their reunion is memorable to say the least. All alone in her hotel room with the lights off, Lucia waits nervously. Now that her husband has left she believes Max will pay her a visit. He does. Greeting her with questions and accusations - why have you come here? what are you doing here? - he slaps her around and throws her on the floor violently. He is furious, convinced that she has come here to expose him. She tries to run away from him but he keeps pulling her back, until finally, against the hotel room door, they embrace. Lucia pulls Max onto the floor and they caress ferociously. Clinging to each other desperately and euphorically, they rejoice and laugh at the fact they are finally together. This almost insane show of affection has a constant undertone of sadness, for the pair, now that they are together, appear to have been lost without each other since they parted.
From this moment onwards, they pick up where they left off and continue their sado-masochistic relationship in Max's flat. Dark, dingy, and murky, they cut themselves off from the outside world (Max tries to hide Lucia from his Nazi friends). Even though Max's human side is shown more to us now that he is reunited with his lover, there's no doubt that he is a sick man. He kills the former camp chef in fear that he will expose him, he ties Lucia up in his flat so that she can't escape... he hasn't changed at all. It is indeed a very murky business between him and Lucia, but beneath that they both seem deeply attached to each other, making for a very sad viewing.
Of course, the most famous, even iconic scene from the film is the flashback to Lucia's dance at the concentration camp. Wearing an SS cap, suspenders, and completely topless, Lucia performs a seductive dance to Marlene Dietrich's song, 'Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte.' Mouthing the sad and gloomy lyrics, there is a disturbing truth to her performance:
'I would like to be a little bit happy,
Because if I were too happy,
I would have yearnings for my sadness.'
As the film nears its end, the central characters of Max and Lucia become more and more pitiable. Locked away, starving, and weak, all that they have is each other. Constantly clinging, holding, and teasing one another, we see that they cannot be separated again. Max even says, 'I love her' referring to Lucia. Can this man, guilty of some of the most despicable acts a human being can ever commit, be capable of such feelings? And towards the girl he abused? Probably. The two are attached to a degree where it seems impossible to keep them apart.
The final scene is about as disturbing as any other in the film. Weak from lack of food, Max dresses Lucia in a dress he made her wear during her time at the camp (or at least one very similar). He too dresses in his old Nazi uniform (he's been saving it all these years) and the two drive to a picturesque river. Arm in arm, holding on dearly to each other, the pair stroll along the bridge together. Within moments they are shot and killed.
I really don't know what to make of this film. Unfortunately there is a definite tacky quality to it, and there is an undeniable feeling that the makers were exploiting the ideas the film presents. Without exploring the reasons behind Max's actions or Lucia's means that it film lacks any depth it had the potential to show. Even though I began to pity the pair, that was only because of Bogarde and Rampling's outstanding performances. They give the film depth - nothing else. But even their acting cannot save the problems that make this film so heavily criticised. You can call Cavani's use of the concentration camp an insult to the Holocaust because it is simply used for show, not to explore any meaning. Why does Lucia go back to Max? Why does she stay? It is frustrating that more was not done to make this picture better. When you read any synopsis you see the words 'sado-masochistic relationship between Nazi officer and concentration camp victim' - it grabs the attention. It shocks. Even today it is shocking that a film would have this as it's plot line. Was that the whole point of Cavani's choice? To attract attention? And consequently have a film that is style over substance?
Many dislike this film and I can understand why. But I'd say it's definitely worth a watch. Not for the themes but for some of its nicely choreographed scenes, and undoubtedly for top performances from Bogarde and Rampling.
|Rampling & Bogarde off-set.|