Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Night Porter (1974)

Call me jaded if you must, but more often than not whenever I hear about how “shocking” or “controversial” a film is these days I usually take it with a grain of salt, as more often than not all the hype ends up being just that, hype and nothing more. I’m sure most would agree with me when I say that if the strength of your film relies solely on how “shocking” it is, chances are it’s severely lacking in other areas. Yet, there’s a reason why some of the most notorious films also happen to be some of the most memorable. Films such as Pasolini’s Salò (1975), Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975) and Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) immediately spring to mind. All are unquestionably provocative, but also offer so much more than just lurid subject matter making their impressions all the more lasting,  and as a result all are still being discussed, debated and still provoking polarized reactions to this day. Liliana Cavani’s 1974 classic The Night Porter defiantly fits into this category. With a film like this, it’s not hard to understand why some would take issue with it. The Holocaust can be a pretty touchy subject, and adding sex to the mixture is taking it to another level of transgression, and I’ll wager a mere glancing of the synopsis would be enough to make any boring member of polite society run as far away from the film as possible. The fact that it was directed by a woman probably turned a fair share of heads as well. I first became aware of The Night Porter about 10 or 11 years ago. It wasn’t long after Criterion put the DVD out as I discovered it while browsing through their website. The first thing to immediately catch my attention was naturally, the enticing cover art. The more I read about the film, the more I became intrigued and got the DVD soon after. I’ll fully admit to not nearly “getting” the entire film after my first viewing,  but the more I watched it over the years and the older and wiser (fell free to roll your eyes) I got, the psychology of the film and the brilliance of the performances from it’s two leads became more and more apparent, and The Night Porter now stands as one of my favorite films, regardless of genre.

13 years after World War II, Max (Dirk Bogarde), a former SS officer, is now living a quiet life working as a night porter in a fancy hotel in Vienna, Austria. Max is soon set to stand trial in an attempt to clear his name of past actions. All of Max’s former Nazi comrades have gone through the process, and plan on helping Max achieve the same outcome by burning all documents and “filing away” as they put it, any potential witnesses. Max is thrown for a loop when one of the guests at the hotel happens to be Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), a concentration camp survivor who was involved in an ambiguous sadomasochistic relationship with Max during the war, with Max acting as her dominant tormentor yet also as a protector of sorts, and it isn’t long before the two sre back to their old habits. Max’s friends view Lucia as a serious liability, although Max vehemently refuses to give her up. Fearing the potential harm that could come to Lucia and himself, the two lock themselves away in Max’s apartment with limited resources, essentially shutting themselves off from the outside world, all the while being closely observed by Max’s former SS cohorts.

The Night Porter may feature Nazi sex and scenes of S&M involving chains, broken glass and even some good old fashion wound licking, but if you’re expecting something along the lines of an Ilsa film you’re liable to be disappointed. At it’s core, The Night Porter is a love story. Granted it’s probably the most demented love story ever brought to the screen, but a love story nonetheless. Admittedly, the film is a bit of a slow burn, but if you’re willing to fully invest in these characters the film becomes more fascinating as it goes along. Through flashbacks we witness the development of Max and Lucia’s relationship with Cavani only letting us in just a bit, always leaving the full evolution of the relationship a bit vague. Lucia remains a complete mystery throughout the entire film. It’s never really revealed how she came to be this masochistic, not only accepting, but craving this type of treatment from Max, which I always thought was wise on Cavani’s part, as I feel an explanation would have cheapened the film. She is that way because she is, and I think that’s a major aspect of the film that a lot of people found hard to take. One of the most interesting things about the film is how the argument could be made that the dominant/submissive roles have been reversed, at least mentally. For Max, it’s no longer about getting off on the power he holds over Lucia as it was during the war. He may still be the psychically dominant one, but he’s now legitimately, hopelessly in love with Lucia, as he admits to her and to others. The feeling is obviously reciprocated, as Lucia fully goes along, no questions asked with the extreme measures taken by Max in order to protect themselves from his friends, right down to being chained in his apartment. He even tells her she can be free of all the isolation whenever she pleases, yet she stays. Watching these two lock themselves away and starve is disturbingly touching in a way. Say what you will about how their relationship started or how “unhealthy” it may be, their committed to each other, no matter the cost.

There’s a few different ways to look at the whole former Nazi group of friends subplot. It’s true that it’s a bit far fetched (although you could say the exact same thing about the main plotline as well) but I’ve always seen it as a vehicle to look deeper into Max’s character and how he truly feels about his past. Pay close attention to Max’s demeanor  whenever his friends (who by the way are more than proud of their SS credentials) are present and when his upcoming trial and the war are discussed. Max may be the one to initiate a group sieg heil in one particular scene, but one gets the strongest impression that it’s all for show. Max claims to be content living like a “church mouse” as he puts, it, but when Lucia re-enters his life he becomes determined to stay that way, for his sake and hers. But even before he is reunited with Lucia it’s clear that he’s uncomfortable with the thought of going through the trial, yet is it because he’s nervous about the outcome or is he truly ashamed of his Nazi past (the obvious exception being Lucia) and wants to avoid it at all costs? It’s this ambiguity that makes The Night Porter so much more than meets the eye. It’s also what makes Bogarde’s performance so brilliant as the second you start to feel sympathy for this man you can never forget his actions of the past, no matter how he may feel about them in the present. It’s important to point out that there during the majority of the time Bogarde and Rampling are on screen together there is hardly and dialogue, and honestly there didn’t need to be any. The looks on their faces when they recreate their favorite “games” of the past says it all. What’s even more incredible is the way the two instantly switch moods with ease, going from desperation due to their self imposed isolation to passionate love making in the span of seconds. In all honesty Rampling could have never spoke a word and still would have knocked it out of the park. This lack of dialogue works wonders during the flashback sequences as Rampling really gets to show what she‘s made of, conveying what appears to be Lucia’s fear and confusion while all the while retaining her characters aura of mystery.  

Even if you’ve never seen The Night Porter chances are you’ve seen the now iconic poster art featuring that still of Rampling from the legendary flashback scene in the film wherein she dances seductively for Max and his fellow officers (and is rewarded with a severed head for her troubles). Hell even if you’ve never seen the poster you’ve probably seen an image inspired buy it in one way or another, it’s a look that’s been copied countless times by innumerable fetish models since the release of the film. More than just an excuse for a catchy looking poster, the scene in question sees Cavani flexing her artistic muscle, as it always appeared to me as a sort of surrealist paining come to life, what with the musicians playing, the strange masks a number of people in the scene are wearing and the overall hazy nature of it. It also carries over the dank, cold grayness the other flashbacks have. While we’re still on the subject of the flashbacks, there’s one that still sticks out for me as it remains a part of the film I could never comprehend. One of Max’s Nazi friends is a ballet dancer, and when he dances in private for Max the film cuts back to war time and he is seen doing a dance for his entire Nazi troupe. I really have no idea what purpose those scenes serve. If anybody reads this maybe they could shed some light. I know I’ve used this phrase on here before (like I’m so above repeating myself) but with a film like The Night Porter, there really doesn’t seem to be a grey area as far as I can tell. People either love it or despise it. As you can tell, I happen to belong to the former. It’s a lot of things to different people, tasteless, depraved, brave, ultimately incredibly sad, but one things for certain, this is filmmaking at it’s most audacious and regardless of your opinion on the film you have to applaud Liliana Cavani for taking on such, if you’ll allow me to say so, ballsy material that, along with pushing thematic boundaries, is filled with psychological complexity and striking, haunting imagery. Love it or hate it, you won’t forget it.

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