“You were always insane, and you still are.”
‘The Night Porter’, directed by Liliana Cavani in 1974, is an Italian erotic thriller starring Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling. Bogarde plays Maximilianan Aldorfer, an ex-Nazi SS officer who had gone into hiding as a hotel porter in Vienna. Rampling plays a Holocaust survivor called Lucia Atherton who had entered into a strange, sadomasochistic relationship with Aldorfer during her incarceration twelve years before. By chance, Atherton stays are Aldorfer’s hotel and is drawn to her former torturer, but her presence places the porter at risk of exposure. Aldorfer finds himself torn between his twisted love for Atherton, and his desire to put his past behind him. This movie is not easy to like. The relationship between Atherton and Aldorfer is transgressive, but the nature of the relationship isn’t the main issue. The problem with the film is the way this relationship is presented on screen, and on the fetishizing of the trappings of Nazism. In short, this film seems on the surface to sexualise not only the fascistic iconography of the Third Reich, but, even more disturbing, the horrific details of the concentration camps. The one thing that pulls this back is the fact that this is clearly intended to be an allegory for the shifting relationships between the nations following the war (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the film is set in Vienna, a city physically and politically divided following the collapse of Nazism), and a blunt commentary on the nature of post-war guilt in Germany. Cavani presents her story in the seedy, muted colours of 1970s German cinema, the plight of Atherton and Aldorfer is romanticised but not to the extent that it becomes a love story. It’s an unsettling movie, and is clearly intended to be. The performances are brilliantly underplayed, the flashbacks to the camp are jarring rather than explanatory. Nothing is explained – only presented without comment.
Would I recommend it? Maybe – if you can get past the disturbing central conceit and can focus on the skills of the director and actors. The intention is to shock and upset, and this movie achieves this.