Where do I even begin with Liliana Cavani’s 1974 THE NIGHT PORTER as the core foundation of the film’s subject matter is about a sadomasochistic relationship? The core of this story lays heavily in the tragic isolation between Lucia, a Holocaust survivor (played by Charlotte Rampling) and Max her former Nazi torturer (played by Dirk Bogarde) who happens to be her lover working as a hotel porter in Vienna long after the war has ended. Some might consider this as a “nazi sexploitation” film and that might make most uncomfortable but from a psychological standpoint it’s simply about two lost souls making sense of their lives while being crippled by the inherent need to cerebrally fuck with each other. And perhaps the whole sadomasochist label can be substituted for what it actually is; Stockholm syndrome because being abused and isolated for a lengthy period of time can do an extensive amount of damage.
Much of Lucia and Max’s past is revealed through some bone-chilling flashbacks and how their sexual relationship evolved throughout the duration of Lucia’s time at a concentration camp as a young woman. As the past tangos with the present where Max, working as a night porter in actuality is attempting to live a life among the shadows he lurks behind. He’s still considered a Nazi who’s basically a war criminal on the run. However, out of sheer coincidence Max reconnects with Lucia who happens to be staying with her husband in the hotel Max works for and the pair reignite their affair.Max’s Nazi colleagues catch wind of Lucia and fear she will report them all. In order to protect himself and Lucia the two lock themselves away in his tiny apartment. It’s almost as if the tables are turned where Max endures the torture of living in fear while being stripped of his freedom which is what Lucia experienced in the concentration camp. Except this time Lucia is with him enduring the same psychological torment and eventually starvation. The two have sealed their fate complying themselves entirely to madness which springs on hallucinations as well the act of rationing food. Their physical degradation is an enormous metaphor for their emotional desire to pain which consequently is breaking them down, stripping away their sense of humanity. It’s like slowly watching their souls shred away in some meat grinder.
In one of the most provocative, probably infamous scene of the film is in a flashback where Lucia’s half nude wearing some baggy SS pants, suspenders, and a hat while swaying about and singing a Marlene Dietrich song. It’s as enchanting as it is haunting but nicely played out in a dizzying dreamlike manner all the while paralleling the infamous story of Salome from the bible. That’s right there’s a severed head involved which amplifies the magnitude of this moment as a decree of pleasure or perhaps pain depending how you perceive it. Even the camera’s movements effectively hypnotize the audience as if they’re apart of this erotic saunter by pushing and pulling out on certain features such as the onlookers who happen to be wearing creepy masks. All the men in this room have this stoic presence where the choreography feels natural, not staged.
Stylistically it reminds me of a bruising nightmare, parading itself inside a wound that never fully heals as it creeps into your soul and doesn’t let go. It’s a resilient, heavy film to handle but it does so with a manner of obscure grace. This film shouldn’t be perceived as a realistic entity because there are elements of fantasy at play here. It’s almost as if the flashbacks adhere to fantasy because of how detrimental the reality of they’re past had been. It’s easier to spruce up or at least project a fantasy as opposed to reliving the actuality of the monstrosity over and over again like some coping mechanism. I mean if you had a relationship with a Nazi would you be charmed to have him in your life again knowing you were sexually abused by him as a young girl? This takes the whole Lolita concept to an astronomical level. It’s confusing.
For instance, in what I assume could be another dream sequence with Bert, (played by Amedeo Amodio) a homosexual dancer dancing only in a thong among the other officers and Max in an open dingy-lit room has this desirous effect behind the male gaze objectifying the male body from Max’s perspective. However, in reality it’s Bert who makes a reference in wanting to dominate Max and preserve him as his slave but the irony is typically the submissive has all the power. The submissive can choose to intentionally deny the dom perhaps subjecting himself to a layer of pain for resisting.
It’s challenging trying to comprehend Cavani’s approach specifically when it comes to using men and women’s bodies as is shown in two very distinctive scenes between Lucia’s dance and Bert’s. Perhaps, it’s the use of these dreamlike sequences to shed light on the psyche behind these characters, deeply embedded desires that can’t necessarily manifest in reality. However, Max and Lucia’s sadomasochistic relationship is convincing beyond belief such as the scene where Lucia locks herself in the bathroom with Max pounding on the door. She shatters a bottle of perfume and unlocks the door, as Max barges in crushing his bare feet on the broken glass. He violently stomps his foot further into the glass with a faint smirk on his face totally relishing the moment as does Lucia. It’s such a surreal concept to fathom what drives pain and pleasure to unite in what’s considered a provocative moment.
What makes this film perplexing not only the subject matter but what it prevails in is its stifling atmosphere that conveys how misery is tantalizing and isolation is like slowly suffocating an excruciating death. We see this when their barricading themselves in the apartment agonizing over what the next step of survival is. They can’t go back nor can they move forward, so essentially they’re both pleading to the depths of insanity. And to undergo such an insanity one has to emulate the other’s abusive tendencies. Lucia succumbs to Max’s sexual proclivities by harboring her own agenda basically mirroring his behavior to get what she wants. It’s a tug-a-war affect without compromise. Aside from being married to an American conductor, Lucia’s delved into shattering her “normal” persona to surrendering herself back to being Max’s “little girl”. It’s heartbreaking but in order to conquer the beast one has to become the beast or so it seems.
I’m sure this hotly debated film in 1970 had to have crossed the line for most people who don’t find abuse entertaining. Personally, I see it more as an exploration on an explicable passion that surrenders to the realm of pain and pleasure because it’s what connects them. Because everything in life whatever shape or form has this duality to it and using some force of symmetry maintains it’s presence such as the balancing act between the mind and heart.
I thoroughly enjoyed tackling this film as I’m sure I’ll continue to wrestle with it years to come. I feel like there’s so more to discover here and as I’m barely scratching the surface it shall be revisited because this marvel of a challenge is what I love about cinema. Liliana Cavani is a force to be reckoned with.