A strong film with a rather unfortunate weak ending, Liliana Cavani’s 1974 release The Night Porter is certainly a film that will stay in your mind once viewing. Tackling sexual power play, politics and psychology, Cavani’s feature is a complicated piece that asks more questions than it answers but presents a very conflicted picture. What would you do if your torturer and lover turned up in your life again over a decade later from when you first saw them? Water under the bridge or a broken dam about to inflict some serious damage?
Set in 1957 in post-war Vienna, our two leads, Max (Dirk Bogarde) and Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), have been trying to rebuild their lives after being on opposing sides during World War II. Max is now a night porter at a grand hotel, working during the night to hide himself (and his shame) away from the majority of the world. During the War Max was a high ranking SS Officer, now trying to eliminate evidence which and witnesses who might possess incriminating details on him. Lucia is now married to a wealthy American conductor, but as a young girl was an imprisoned in a concentration camp. Whilst in the camp Max took a shine to her and it is implied that the reason for her survival could be down to the fact that he fell in love with her, calling Lucia ‘His little girl’.
And it is here that things start to get a little complicated. Lucia winds up staying at the hotel Max works at and as soon as they lay their eyes on each other memories start flooding back. Cleverly told from flashback, the audience gets to explore their relationship from its beginnings through to its ambiguously messy developments which eventually see Lucia seemingly willing to play some of Max’s games (the most memorable scene of which see’s Rampling singing to and seducing a bunch of officers in nothing but a few pieces of SS costume, her reward being the head of an inmate who bullied her).
It’s not long before the past catches up with the both of them and the two end up in a passionate embrace which brings about their torturous love affair all over again. With either unable to leave the past behind, Max takes Lucia and keeps her at his apartment where they continue to play the sadomasochistic games they once played years ago. A compulsive need to repeat the past? Perhaps, as neither Max nor Lucia appear to have truly been able to shake off their experiences, Lucia still vulnerable and impressionable and Max still deluded in his thought that he will once again regain the military title he used to have and see Nazi political power restored in Europe. It also poses an interesting portrait on Stockholm Syndrome, showing how psychologically complex the issue really is and yet how easy it can be for some victims to fall for their captors.
A film that will no doubt divide audiences, some of whom will find it nothing more than complete exploitation and sensationalism of two topics, Nazism and the Holocaust, and some who may even question why the film was so controversial upon its release in the first place. It remains however a very strong portrait on the psychology behind sexual power play and just how deep scars of personal experience can run. It’s ending is most certainly a letdown but leaves the door open for you to question yourself and come to your own conclusions as a viewer.