Posted July 29, 2012 by Jonathan McCalmont in DVD/Blu-ray
 
 

The Night Porter


Celebrated for its themes of sexual transgression and reviled for the decision to explore those themes against a background of German war guilt and Holocaust survival, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter is widely considered to be one of the great works of post-War cinematic provocation.

Celebrated for its themes of sexual transgression and reviled for the
decision to explore those themes against a background of German war guilt and
Holocaust survival, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter is widely considered to
be one of the great works of post-War cinematic provocation.
However, move
beyond the Naughty Nazis and Cavani’s film reveals itself as little more than a
windy, self-important and incoherent mess.

Set in 1957, the film opens on a
luxurious Viennese hotel where the rich indulge themselves with the help of a
night porter named Max (Dirk Bogarde).
Max is a competent man but he keeps to the shadows out of fear that someone
will recognise him as the aristocratic SS officer who spent the war indulging
his fetishes and pretending to be a doctor. In order to preserve his church
mouse anonymity, Max allies himself with a group of Nazis who work together to
pro-actively destroy all evidence of their guilt. However, this alliance is
shattered the second one of Max’s victims walks into his hotel and instantly
recognises him.

The victim in question is a young
Jewish woman (Charlotte Rampling)
who survived the Holocaust by tirelessly adapting herself to Max’s sexual
proclivities. Initially, the pair are terrified as they both realise that Max’s
‘little girl’ could send him to the gallows should she choose to testify
against him. However, when Max decides to tie off the loose end, the couple
immediately slide back into the same sadomasochistic and co-dependent
relationship they enjoyed in the concentration camp. Unwilling to ‘dispose of
the evidence’ and now loudly professing his love for the Jewish woman he raped
and humiliated as a child, Max suddenly finds himself being targeted by the
very Nazis who once considered him their friend.

If cinematic history has been kind
to The Night Porter it is chiefly due
to the series of dream-like vignettes that Cavani scatters across the face of the
narrative. Almost entirely dialogue-free, these vignettes chart Rampling’s transformation
from a terrified child to a sexually empowered woman who fearlessly performs a
topless cabaret before a group of leering Nazis. Shot with a combination of
elegant eroticism and low-key surrealism, these scenes are not just amazing to
look at, they are also a highly evolved exercise in visual storytelling.
Indeed, the more we learn about the behaviour of the ‘little girl’ in the camp,
the more we realise that there was a good deal more to the sexual relationship
than a desire to survive.

While there is no denying either
the beauty of the power of these transgressive dreamscapes, it is frustrating
to note that while the storytelling inside the vignettes is arresting, Cavani
fails to root them in either the wider narrative or basic principles of human
psychology. As with Max’s feelings of guilt and his desire to withdraw from the
world and live ‘like a church mouse’, the true desires and motivations of the
‘little girl’ are never explored and so Cavani never actually engages with any
of the Big Ideas that litter the foreground of the film.

With nothing to say and nearly two
hours in which to say it, The Night
Porter
shambles along with neither point nor purpose. Lacking proper
characterisation, the film struggles to engage our sympathies meaning that the
descent into thriller territory towards the end of the film feels forced,
fraudulent and entirely unexciting.

Released on Blu-ray with neither
bells or whistles, The Night Porter does contain a few legitimately wonderful cinematic moments but aside from dancing Nazis, there is
little here to explain why it is that this film has endured while other works
of artful Nazisploitation such as Tinto
Brass
Salon Kitty have largely
disappeared from view. Neither as transgressive as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo
or as politically engaged as Marcel
Ophuls
The Sorrow and The Pity,
Cavani’s Night Porter sheds little light on the human truths lost in the moral
rubble of the Second World War.


Jonathan McCalmont