Cast & Crew
Thirteen years after World War II, Lucia, a survivor of a German concentration camp runs into her former Nazi captor and lover Max, who is now a harmless night porter at the Vienna hotel where she and her husband are staying. In spite of the violent and perverted nature of their sadomachochistic wartime "relationship," a sexual bond remains, and they begin an affair. Before long, some of Max's former SS comrades begin stalking them and it is decided that Lucia should be killed because she is a witness to their war crimes.
The Night Porter
This mid-'70s picture fits pretty neatly into the pejorative category of what many have called "Nazi chic" or what critic Pauline Kael dubbed "Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe parties." Indeed, as Insdorf points out, "it can be seen as an exercise in perversion and exploitation of the Holocaust for the sake of sensationalism." Reviewers at the time of the film's release were not so restrained, calling it "as nasty as it is lubricious...despicable" (Roger Ebert); "a piece of junk...romantic pornography" (Vincent Canby); and from Kael herself, "humanly and aesthetically offensive," granting it a dubious feminist distinction in proving that "women can make junk just like men."
Why such fuss? Well, consider this: The Night Porter takes place in 1957 Vienna where a concentration camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) is accidentally reunited with the SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) who was her torturer, protector and partner in a sadomasochistic relationship. He is now working the night shift in a fancy hotel and a reluctant member of a group of ex-SS seeking to hide their pasts by destroying documents and killing any possible witnesses to their war crimes. The two rekindle their twisted relationship in the porter's apartment until the Nazi cabal forces them into the open to meet their inevitable doom.
Director Liliana Cavani was lead to this story and the wartime setting through her research for the documentaries she made for Italian television early in her career, notably the four-part The History of the Third Reich (1963); Women of the Resistance (1965); another on Phillippe Pétain (1965), head of the Nazi puppet Vichy government of France; and Day of Peace (1965), an examination of the present lives of several survivors of the war and the Nazi concentration camps. The Night Porter was her fourth theatrical feature but the first to gain her international status.
Bogarde had transformed himself from a 1950s British cinema pin-up ("sort of England's Robert Wagner," he later said) into a respected actor in a string of controversial film roles, beginning with Victim (1961), about a closeted gay barrister being blackmailed and hounded. Thanks to his critically acclaimed work in such films as Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963) and two by Luchino Visconti, The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971), Bogarde had become somewhat typecast and took some time off, refusing scripts that would cast him in stories of decadence, degeneracy and Nazism. But after viewing with much pleasure Cavani's TV film Galileo (1968), he decided to give her script for The Night Porter a closer look.
Bogarde's memoir, An Orderly Man, gives us some insight into the film's genesis. Although he found the script to be "fine" in the first part, "a mess" in the middle and "a melodramatic mish-mash" at the end, he was attracted to the central relationship between the porter and the camp survivor, especially after he discovered the script was based on real events.
According to Bogarde's authorized biographer, John Coldstream, while researching a prison camp documentary for television, Cavani interviewed two Italian women who had been imprisoned as partisans. One described returning to Dachau every year for reasons she left unexplained. The other told Cavani how after being freed from Auschwitz she found she could not return to her family. "Don't think that all victims are innocent," the woman said. From the two stories, Cavani wove a tale of human nature taken to the limits of credibility "through a sado-masochistic relationship made possible by the extreme situation in which the principals find themselves." The final script was completed with contributions from Rampling, Bogarde and Bogarde's partner and manager Anthony Forwood, according to Coldstream.
"Cavani, Charlotte, and I...we never thought we were making a porno movie until [producer] Joe Levine got hold of it," Bogarde told Gary Indiana for a 1991 Interview magazine profile. "The point was, we thought - and I'd been to Belsen, I'd been to Dachau - that it was possible, in that hell and awfulness, that you could find one little seed of human compassion that would grow and form a plant of love. And it did happen. Not very many times, but I know that it did happen."
Bogarde had a much darker experience, however, during filming. One scene shot in Austria, where the actor said, "they were much tougher, much more Nazi than even the Germans were," required him to make an entrance wearing an SS uniform, cross the street and get into a car. He told Indiana he was "shit-scared" by appearing in public that way. He was kept hidden in an elderly woman's flat until the signal was given for him to emerge. Doffing an overcoat that covered the uniform and slipping on his black gloves, he was taken aback when the old woman fell to her knees, caressing his boots and exclaiming, "It's the good days again." The scene outside was no less disturbing.
"There was an enormous crowd - you couldn't hide the fact we were making a bloody movie - and when I came out, it was like I was Garbo or Dietrich," Bogarde said. "And they were shrieking with joy and singing the 'Horst Wessel Song' [one of the Nazi anthems banned after the war]. I should worry. And all the kids came running after me, to hold my hand, to touch the uniform - all of them."
Because of this context and the nature of the sexual relationship at its core, The Night Porter remains a controversial film to this day. Can it be seen only as the exercise in perversion and exploitation Insdorf alludes to or, as she writes, does a closer reading suggest "a dark vision of compelling characters doomed by their World War II past"?
Director: Liliana Cavani
Producers: Joseph E. Levine (executive producer, uncredited), Esa De Simone, Robert Gordon Edwards
Screenplay: Liliana Cavani and Italo Moscati; story by Liliana Cavani, Barbara Alberti and Amadeo Pagani
Cinematography: Alfio Contini
Editing: Franco Arcalli
Art Direction: Nedo Azzini, Jean Marie Simon
Music: Daniele Paris
Cast: Dirk Bogarde (Max), Charlotte Rampling (Lucia), Philippe Leroy (Klaus), Gabriele Ferzetti (Hans), Isa Miranda (Countess Stein)
By Rob Nixon
The Night Porter
Released in United States Spring April 1974
Released in USA on video.
Re-released in Paris October 30, 1991.
Released in United States Spring April 1974