Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Night Porter: Weirdly touching


I had no idea what to expect when I sat down to watch this film, nor did I know if I would like it (considering the controversial themes). I follow the Sir Dirk Bogarde group on Facebook and although the group owners post images and other interesting facts about Bogarde daily, every Saturday they have a tradition of only posting aboutThe Night Porter (1974). Seeing Bogarde in Nazi uniform caressing a beautiful young woman, I wondered what on earth this film was (a Nazi romance?). After researching on Google and IMDB I was actually horrified at each synopsis I was reading. Not because of the sadomasochistic relationship but rather because of the background of that relationship - a concentration camp. Why on earth would you want to make a film documenting such a thing happening in one of those terrible camps between a Nazi officer and one of the camp prisoners - a victim of the Holocaust? Why would anybody want to even watch it? Regardless I was intrigued. Being a huge fan of Bogarde and wanting to witness the depth of the controversial story, I decided to watch it.

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.

Two words come to mind when I describe this picture: sickening and touching. It's impossible not to be repulsed by it, and yet I found it equally impossible to not be moved. Director Liliana Cavani has created a film that constantly shifts from the horrific to the beautiful. She and cinematographer Alfio Contini have been very specific in the creepy, depressing feel they wanted to give to each scene. The muted blues and greys of the camp office and the rainy streets of Vienna are both chilling and romantic. This palette changes to dirty browns and yellows when scenes take place in the camp showers, prison quarters, and Bogarde's flat. Cavani and Contini have ensured that colour enhances the gloom of the story, reflecting the moods of each individual scene.

If one thing's for certain it's that The Night Porter makes for particularly uncomfortable viewing. Max (Bogarde) is hateful from the very beginning. He may seem like a 'church mouse' working quietly at a hotel but the flashbacks of him as a concentration camp officer are horrific. Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) is very young when she is imprisoned at the camp. Her first encounter with him is when she has arrived with a queue of others to the camp, assumedly terrified at where she has been brought. And what does Max do? He films everyone but makes a particular point of filming her as close as possible - shoving the camera in her face. Later he will shoot at her in the showers, force his fingers into her mouth, present her with the severed head of an inmate who bothered her - basically he abuses and traumatises her throughout their years at the camp.

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.

Later, Lucia attends one of her husband's concerts. Sat just a few rows back is Max, a shadowy, lurking figure (like her past that she has ignored for so long, its lurking). Lucia has no idea he's there but she feels somebody is staring at her, and the expression on her face tells us that she guesses who it is behind her. She looks back and there he is. Max gives a little smile because he can see that she keeps looking back at him' he knows that she is curious. Not long after this she avoids leaving with her husband, making up an excuse to stay at the hotel. We begin to realise that actually she wants to see Max.

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.'

Compare these lyrics to her reunion with Max; years apart from him, being free of him and his abuse, meant that she yearned for him when they were apart - is this what she's saying? Rampling is a beautiful woman, with razor sharp cheek bones and piercing eyes. Playing a camp prisoner, she is made to look gaunt, pale, and deathly, but in doing so the make-up made her beautiful eyes and incredible cheek bones stand out even more. Do I dare say it... there is a deathly sexiness to Lucia? The thought makes me shudder but it's true. In this scene she performs for the whole office of SS wardens, but her eyes always find their way back to Max - it's all for him. The scene is well set-up and choreographed, even if it doesn't make any sense.

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?

Aside from its many flaws, I did actually enjoy it. Minus the horrible images of the camps, the abuse Lucia receives, the silly caricature Nazis, I was actually touched by Max and Lucia. Is this primarily because of the superb actors in their roles? Possibly. Nevertheless I was moved, especially with their reunion and the final scene. It's such a pathetic sight...

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.
The more I read about this film the more I realise I'm not intellectual enough to really pick it apart, nor to understand it's positives and negatives fully. For that I'm afraid you'll have to read elsewhere. I thought I'd share my thoughts anyway.


  1. I must applaud for your honest review on such a difficult film! Isn't it one of those films you actually hesitate for quite some time about seeing it because of its reputation and the preposterous story? That's what has kept me from seeing this film for long, but what has made it also very enticing. Late 60s-70s European cinema is such an interesting period to uncover concerning the representation of Holocaust and of WW2. And I have read somewhere there was a Nazi exploitation (fetichism of the Nazi uniform, SM) wave in European and erotic cinema, that was and still remains highly controversial now! Now that you've seen it, I need to catch this up! You should definitely watch Monsieur Klein (Joseph Losey) with Alain Delon, and The Conformist (Bertolucci) that are also thought-provoking classics of that time! Tons of love dear!

    1. Thanks, Steph! Yes the film does seem to respond to those years in Europe. I will look out for your recommendations. It's definitely a film you should see, but maybe pick an afternoon. It's a bit too depressing for the evening :)

    2. I think I'll watch this during the fall/winter season, thanks for the tip! Which films are you watching next? You should check out if "Plein Soleil" is getting a re-release in the UK, it's a must-see in the theater in all it's glory! xoxo

  2. I first seen this film about 20 years ago when I myself was in my mid twenties. I knew it was good but didn't understand it; I found the self destructive aspect of it fascinating. Now in my mid-forties and having fought succesfully through a terrible and incredibly self destructing drug addiction as well as many dysfunctional relationships I understand this film much more than I wish i did. It is a haunting and perfect portrait of the perverse pleasure and liberation, and shame, that one feels as one slowly destroys oneself.