“The Night Porter”, a notorious movie from the Seventies, was thoroughly despised by Roger Ebert, which is rather bemusing since he wrote the script for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” a film “perhaps the greatest expression of [Russ Meyers] intentionally vapid surrealism” -- frankly pornographic. Ebert considers “Night Porter” soap opera. Pots and kettles? I think one could make a pretty good case that “The Night Porter,” which I had never seen before, is a precursor to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Same tortured and twisted girl, same Nazi sub-plot. Actually, I think I like “The Night Porter” better.
Wiki: “Liliana Cavani (born 12 January c. 1937) is an Italian film director and screenwriter. She belongs to a generation of Italian filmmakers that came into prominence in the 1970s and includes Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Marco Bellochio. Cavani became internationally known after the success of her 1974 feature film Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter) . Her films have intellectual ambitions and historical concerns. In addition to feature films and documentaries, she has been an opera director.”
So, like “The Last September,” this is about the impact of political events on individuals, twisting them and confusing their fates, but this is much later in the sequence -- the war is over, not beginning. The debris is Nazi as well as internationally cultural. It is operatic. (The directors of both films are opera directors.) Instead of great country houses, we are looking at elegant hotels and theatres. Lives are very patterned and -- it seems -- quite shallow lest one break into something untoward. The former Nazis have a little therapy group where they “mock try” each other, the idea being that if they are totally open and honest, they will become normal. Or at least relaxed. The leader, who spouts pseudo-wisdom, is very Jungish.
Ebert is right -- a lot of people will see this movie because they are titillated by naked and tortured people, the same as “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Others will see it as a feminist tract, pointing out the vulnerability of women and the exploitation of that by violent men. And yet the women find ways to fight back and take pride in their ability to absorb punishment. It’s not hard to find the pattern everywhere.
Briefly, the plot -- which is more like a premise -- is that a Nazi torturer meets his female victim years later and they resume their sexual obsession. One could profitably reflect on this movie by comparing it with “In the Realm of the Senses” or “In the Cut,” both of which focus on sexual obsession so strong that the couple turn away from all normal social context and react only to the bodies of each other until the point of death.
Or one could get more anthropological and talk about Victor Turner’s idea of “liminal space” and how it is a “place” in the mind where consciousness is free of all constraints and open to relationship to the point of being disconnected from reality. Or one could get REALLY contemporary and talk about how people get physiologically imprinted on each other, their identities intertwined in an electrochemical way because they formed the relationship under “hot” circumstances flooded with adrenaline, like combat or a terrible disaster. Anyway, it happens, however you explain it, and the consequences are not always happy ever after. I think the least helpful way to look at this movie is in terms of morality or even religion.
Of course, with friends like these self-protective and deluded Nazis, there is no need to identify other devils, predators or risks. They murder at will. The police are a shadow. All possible protectors pull away. The conductor does not come looking for his wife. (Harrison Ford would have.) She doesn’t want him anyway. She is a cat now and it is her former tormentor who is the mouse.
It’s interesting that when one sees Charlotte Rampling in recent movies, it’s as though she had actually lived those early parts she only played. I mean, the characters she plays in both “The Last September” and “The Spy Game,” one benign and one wicked, she seems deeply experienced and intrigued by life. But in “The Night Porter” in the scenes of imprisonment she is a puppet, a doll, no expression, barely any muscle tone. A “little girl” the Bogarde character calls her, but I wonder whether the original language might have called her a “poppet.” She is a pet. And one feels confident that the orchestra conductor also sees her as his pet. But in the starving/feasting moments, she is energized.
The following quote is from an online review by “Eight Rooks.” “. . .we discover what started as rolling over for someone who could snuff her out without thinking became a desire to cling to, then a growing dependence on the person who gave her existence in the camp some kind of meaning. While she remained with Max he kept her safe, protected her from harm and in his own way, genuinely cared that nothing should happen to her.”
Though there is room in the script to see it that way, I suspect this interpretation is an overlay from the sentimental reviewer, who admitted as much. Given the cut-off head of a bothersome man she’d asked to be rebuked or transferred, the Rampling character is pushed to the limit of her determination to show no emotion. When the Bogarte character tells the story later, he still finds it funny, but what does it mean? Is he stripping her seven veils? Or is it meant to show his sociopathy?
I had expected the torture to be far more physical, the usual erotic macro-closeups. But at first it was de-personalized: she was only a target, though the goal was evidently to miss her physically (he’s actually shooting at her) while making her suffer mentally. Then in the after war years, the tables are turned. “Eight Rooks” interprets: “a greedy, self-important dictator indulging his basest appetites has somehow become a broken man struggling to hold on to what he thinks (rightly or wrongly) is his last chance at redemption.” I don’t see that. I see ownership and fusion to the point of rejecting any interference from outsiders except death. I suspect that if I had seen this film in 1973, I would have seen it as the reviewer does. The meaning of the greatest art is always in the viewer, merely released by the story.