Monday, 26 February 2007

The Night Porter (Italy/US, 1974, Liliana Cavani)

Upon its release, ‘The Night Porter’ stirred up a great deal of controversy due to its links between Nazism and sado-masochism, though it seems rather tame with three decades of hindsight. Set in Vienna in 1957, Max is a porter in a luxury hotel. Keeping himself to himself besides procuring men for a wealthy countess, he lives his life as “quietly as a church mouse”. However he has a dark secret – he was an SS officer during World War Two and responsible for the exploitation and degradation of numerous prisoners. Max and several of his former accomplices face trial for their crimes, though there is little evidence against them – it is insinuated that they have found ways of eliminating potential witnesses. However Max’s memories of his SS past are reawakened when Lucia, one such victim of his arrives in the hotel, as the wife of a conductor on a global tour. Their eyes meet; they immediately recognise each other. Each has flashbacks to fill us in with what transpired during the war. Acting as a doctor in order to conduct experiments upon prisoners, Lucia was his major ‘patient’. Both are horrified to see each other again – he tries to avoid her, and she wants to leave Vienna, but they are destined to cross paths again. He watches the opera her husband is conducting, whilst she is in the audience. Max eventually confronts her in her hotel room, and wonders why she’s here. He thinks she has come to “give him away”, to testify at his trial, and he then starts to hit her. They soon embrace. The relationship between Max and Lucia was so controversial because it is not a straight-forward victim-captor relationship; it is far more complex than this. A genuine bond formed between them, whether this is love or merely a Stockholm syndrome induced affection, we are never sure. Their relationship resumes as before. Flashbacks of the past and the present almost entwine; their sexual behaviour remains the same. One flashback is particularly objectionable. Lucia wears a Nazi outfit, but remains topless and sings standard German songs for the enjoyment of the SS officers. Whilst Max is too immersed in this relationship in the present to realise how dangerous it might be for him if Lucia decided to testify, his former accomplices try to persuade him to get rid of her. In one telling scene, Max reveals the shame he feels at having put the concentration camp prisoners through degrading treatment, but his accomplices remain proud of what they did, and proud of serving the Third Reich. Whilst this might be seen as an attempt to inject some humanity into Max’s character, it runs the risk of demoting his accomplices to cardboard cut-out villains. One such colleague is extremely effeminate, perhaps insultingly so, and obviously attracted to Max (he dances for him), which is another connotation between sex and sexuality and Nazism. For all the hysteria the film caused, it is rather tame in comparison to Pasolini’s ‘Salo’ which followed in 1975. Max and Lucia’s relationship becomes so dangerous that they have to put a stop to it, and the lovers have to barricade themselves inside his flat, as their lives are in real and obvious danger. When they try to make an escape, they fail to get far, and are shot on a bridge, which seemingly puts Max’s friends in the clear as Lucia was the only witness alive from the camp. Many have dismissed ‘The Night Porter’ as exploitative and tasteless, and it’s true that many similar films followed that really would offend, but this is a worthwhile film, even if it’s not a great one. The English language version features some unconvincing dubbing in places, which reinforces ‘The Night Porter’ as a flawed, but fascinating film.

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