A dangerous film, and an exceptionally harsh rumination on love and pain.
When she arrives with her husband at a beautiful Italian hotel, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling, Under the Sand) sees a disconcerting sight. The night porter (Dirk Bogarde, The Damned) looks remarkably like Max, her tormentor and eventual lover at the concentration camp where she was held captive during WWII. She’s frightened, but drawn to the memory of her experiences and eventually seeks him out. They rekindle the affair, with Lucia leaving her husband for this sadomasochistic fling and Max cloisters the both of them as a group of ex-Nazis are conspiring to find and silence Lucia permanently.
Nazi sexploitation movies, much to many people’s chagrin, were a real thing in the 1970s and I’ve never really been sure why. They’re gross, brutal, and, unlike other kinds of gross exploitation from the same era that are gross and brutal, they aren’t any fun. Plus, if you describe the content of one to somebody, the immediate reaction (thankfully, normally) is revulsion and the sense that they will never ever watch it. The problem with this is that, right in the middle of it all, you have The Night Porter. The description of the content is mostly the same and, really, it sounds even more brutal than, say Deported Women of the SS Special Service. Yet it’s one of the best movies of its decade: a dangerous film, and an exceptionally harsh rumination on love and pain. The trouble is getting people to watch it.
So why, when everything is the same between this and the exploitation fare, does The Night Porter work beautifully? It comes down to the two stars, whose chemistry is phenomenal, and the skill and grace with which writer/director Liliana Cavani (The Year of the Cannibals) treats the material.
That didn’t stop critics upon its release, at least in this country, from reviling the movie upon its release. Roger Ebert, for instance, opened his review by calling it “as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering.” For his greatness, though, Ebert would occasionally clutch his pearls and drop onto his fainting couch over content, and I refuse to pretend to take any moral high ground over a movie, especially when it’s as good as this.
Cavani draws the plot out slowly, almost to the point of boredom at times and, as a result, I have a hard time seeing Cavani trying to titillate the audience. On the contrary, the fact that this kind of story was written and directed by a woman genuinely changes the game. I’m not one for cineaste business, but the Òmale gazeÓ is most certainly not present here, making it an entirely different animal from most of the sexploitation out there, Nazi-style or otherwise. She gets us to see where Lucia is coming from in her burning desire to get back into this toxic relationship. Ever since the war, they have both been dead, so it only makes sense that they be dead together. The funny thing is that the Norrmalmstorg robbery, the incident that became the genesis for Stockholm Syndrome, had only happened the year before and that term had not made it into the public consciousness, yet here it is, described perfectly.
Without the lead performances, though, it could easily have felt disgusting. And it sort of does, but Rampling and Bogarde make so much sense in these roles. Rampling is basically expressionless during the movie, which might seem like a problem but, again, she’s dead inside, so it makes sense. While she might not come alive in personality upon rekindling her relationship with Max, you can tell that she feels something again and it’s that kind of minor catharsis that makes her performance great. Bogarde, on the other hand, has tried his best to forget and essentially not admit to his atrocities. This is why he works at night; in the hard light of day, he disgusts himself. His slow revelation toward acceptance is very well rendered by the actor in one of the actor’s most interesting performances.
Our revelation of those experiences occur in cold blue and green flashbacks that deliver all the things that people have found disgusting about the movie. It is disgusting, of course, but it’s pointless to be like Max and not reckon with the reality of the concentration camp and the horrors of the SS. Cavani wants us to deal with it, to talk about it, and to see it, no matter how uncomfortable that might be. It works because it forces viewers to witness it without gloss and without eroticism. For all that discomfort, Cavani is still able to infuse the film with emotion because The Night Porter is still a movie about love, no matter how morbid and toxic that love might be. From personal experience, sometimes toxic and morbid relationships are the most exciting of all.
The Night Porter comes to Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection as a giant upgrade over their previous (and early) DVD release of the film. The 1.85:1/1080p image transfer looks fantastic, with massive improvements in clarity, depth, and detail all across the frame. Colors are as cold as ever, but impressively rendered and even reveal some warmer tones that were hard to notice before. The audio quality is excellent as well, even for a simple single-channel PCM mix. There is plenty of depth in that one channel, with solid definition in both dialog and music.
Extras aren’t extensive, but they’re strong. The big one is Women of the Resistance, a 50 minute documentary by Cavani made in 1965 that features interviews of women in the Italian resistance during WWII who discuss their activities and how their lives were altered by the experience. It’s an excellent piece that clearly reveals where Cavani’s mindset was at when she made The Night Porter. Also included is a 5-minute introduction with Cavani, recorded in 2014, about the documentary. Aside from the customary booklet, the only other extra is a brand new, nine minute interview with the director, who discusses her inspiration behind the film and some of the subtle oddities about the movie. It’s an excellent, if short, group of extras.
The Night Porter is a singular movie in many ways. Riding the fine line between art and exploitation, it has the power to both titillate and disgust, often in the same scene. Similarly, scenes that are the most conceptually brutal are often presented with genuine tenderness and heart. To do all of that is real power and, even if it’s difficult to convince somebody that it’s worth watching, it very much is. Highly recommended.