Reviews | Written by Martin Unsworth 17/11/2020



The ‘70s brought a wave of films involving Nazi officers or based during the Second World War and from the German viewpoint. Many are in the outrageous Nazisploitation subgenre, but some - like Luchino Visconti’s The Damned and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret - take a serious look at relationships at the start of and during the war, but The Night Porter takes place thirteen years after the war ended, and involves a complicated and disturbing affair between a former prisoner of war and her captor.

Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) is in Vienna with her conductor husband but when checking into their hotel recognises the night porter as one of her tormentors while she was incarcerated as a prisoner of war by the Nazis. Max (Dirk Bogarde) is the titular hotel worker and former Nazi who took a shine to Lucia in the concentration camp. He just wants to live a quiet life now and is quiet and timid, fully aware that the authorities are close to seeking him out to make him pay for his war crimes. When it comes to Max confronting Lucia about whether she is going to expose him, the pair embark on a disturbingly violent but passionate affair.

With the concentration camp scenes shown in vivid and distressing flashback, we see how Lucia develops a type of Stockholm syndrome with Max, whether out of self-preservation or genuine love. The sadomasochistic side is a little hard to stomach, particularly during these flashbacks but the outburst of violence when Max finally faces Lucia again is genuinely hard to watch (apparently Bogarde actually struck Rampling several times).

Director Liliana Cavani lets the story unfold as though it was a mystery, each piece that’s revealed bringing us closer to the inevitable conclusion. There’s a juxtaposition of Max’s position in flashback scenes with almost slavish occupation in the hotel. He gets the dirty jobs of finding young men for the aging ‘Countess’ who resides there and gets drugs for a male ballet dancer in exchange for watching him dance. His arrogance gone until he is faced with Lucia again. While the relationship between the pair is more Last Tango than Fifty Shades, Cavani doesn’t go deep enough into how Lucia may have dealt with her sexual abuse at the hands of Max during the war. Was she complicit to stay alive or, as we’re led to believe, did she genuinely fall in love with a monster? It’s a troubling proposition, but Cavani brings the relationship full circle in the final act as the pair are imprisoned by their love.

The new release, from a 4K scan, looks great (although there’s still a visible hair during the most dramatic scene, which is distracting, but apparently it was Cavani’s choice to leave it in) and there’s a real sense of depression in the ‘50s Vienna hotel. A couple of new special features make this an essential purchase for fans, though. There are two lengthy interviews with the director and Charlotte Rampling. Both are very enlightening. Liliana Cavani, particularly, reveals a lot of great nuggets about the shoot and the people that made it happen, as well as the context and themes the movie represents.

The Night Porter is a difficult film to ‘enjoy’ but is certainly an important piece of cinema. Even in the grimmest scenes, it’s beautifully shot and is a tour de force of acting from Bogarde and Rampling.

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