Prior to its reissue on Criterion last month, The Night Porter had fallen through the cracks in recent decades. It is never revived, I can’t recall seeing a single article about it in years, and the director, Liliana Cavani, is little known in the U.S. today. In her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag batted the movie aside with a single dismissive line. The original 1999 Criterion disc of The Night Porter fell out of print years ago, and I’m hard pressed to think of a film less in need of being brought back to light via a sumptuous Blu-Ray edition. Fascism is not always fascinating.
For The Night Porter is a movie so dumb it could’ve been made in the ‘80s. The screenplay asks us to believe that 12 years after World War II, after traveling around the world with her husband, a celebrated conductor, the poised, cultivated Lucia Atherton (Rampling) drops it all during a two-day stopover in Vienna to willingly become the slave of Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde), the former Nazi who raped and beat her — and made her his willing mistress — in an unnamed concentration camp when she was a teenage girl.
Lucia is never identified as a Jew (nor, curiously, is there any mention of Jews in the movie). Although we learn that she’s the daughter of a socialist, Lucia is otherwise a blank slate; if she were anything else, the script would have to explain why any of this is happening.
The screenplay by Cavani and Italo Moscati shies away from elucidating the relationship between Lucia and Aldorfer. There’s no context or background to even hint at why, in the concentration-camp flashbacks, Lucia would enjoy not just being subjugated but would perform a cabaret number topless for a group of Nazi officers, and even look pleased when Aldorfer presents her with an unusual gift — the severed head of another prisoner, who had previously harassed her.
The movie’s admirers insist that the dance flashback that culminates with the severed head isn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s an allusion to Salome — how profound. But when the Aldorfer of 1957 recounts that particular flashback to a confidante, there’s no indication that he’s lying or that the film has suddenly broken from naturalism. On the contrary, that severed head is entirely in keeping with the ludicrous nature of the rest of the movie.
Defenders of The Night Porter argue that the film is a sensationally loaded text that dares to raise troubling questions about Stockholm syndrome, fascism and victimization. But Cavani’s film embodies exploitation rather than commenting on it; this is the most vacuous treatment of those themes imaginable. The director’s sole idea seems to be that those black Nazi uniforms were, you know, irresistible. Perhaps this was mistaken for profundity in 1974; yes, the Nazis had great art direction. Can we move on? Meanwhile the victims of the Nazis are allowed no voice — because they didn’t have the cool uniforms.
The movie is upfront about making a fetish of those uniforms. The trappings of Nazi power are eroticized, that is, power is treated as inherently sexual, and not violent. The most egregious example of this is a concentration-camp flashback where, in an empty room, Aldorfer shoots at the naked Lucia, intentionally missing, while she playfully scurries around with a smile on her face. Yes, the Holocaust was just like this.
Cavani piles on the chic decadence. Much of the movie has a tittering suggestiveness, as in the way Aldorfer, who has been reduced to working as a concierge in 1957 Vienna, procures stud service for a middle-aged countess as part of his duties. Another flashback to the camps shows a beefy Nazi guard buggering an inmate in the prisoners’ barracks; the prisoner, seemingly well fed himself, grins and appears to masturbate while he takes it from behind. Apparently the camps were full of mutually satisfying sexual experiences for everyone.
To judge from the laudatory notices The Night Porter has occasionally won, the film’s posh surfaces convince some viewers that this is a serious work — the thinking seems to be that sexual frankness (in the form of “shocking” fetishes and self-conscious decadence) surrounded by high culture automatically equates to sophistication.
Cavani’s film frequently suggests an opportunistic successor to immediate precursors like The Conformist (1970) and Cabaret (1972), far more tough-minded movies that don’t use fascist violence simply as a pretext for titillation. Rather than offer any insight into psychological or sexual domination, The Night Porter treats the relationship between Lucia and Aldorfer as the basis for chic posturing.
In its last third, just when it should finally dig beneath the surface of the S&M dynamic that binds Lucia and Aldorfer, the movie instead lurches into a laughable, downbeat thriller about a cabal of cartoonish ex-Nazis resolving to kill Lucia, because she’s supposedly the last survivor who could identify any of them. This subplot takes the film into actual silliness: a scene that shows the ex-Nazis conspiring together plays like a Saturday Night Live skit. It’s comical to watch Klaus (Philippe Leroy), the ringleader here, try to keep his past a secret while he goes around Vienna in a getup that could be the universal shorthand for “Nazi”: the scar, the bulky belted leather jacket, and yes, a monocle (a monocle that switches from one eye to the other during the course of the movie).
It’s hardly clear what these conspirators, clearly well off and well connected, have to fear in the Austria of 1957. This might have been a political comment on Cavani’s part, yet it makes hash of her scenario. The ex-Nazis swagger around Vienna with seemingly perfect impunity, so the alleged threat from Lucia makes no sense.
When Spielberg’s Schindler’s List came out in late 1993, I can recall some critical hand-wringing in the pages of Film Comment and elsewhere. The argument was that commercial filmmakers should abstain from the Holocaust as subject matter because it was too serious and important to be subjected to the inevitable compromises and falsehoods — and, perhaps most dangerous, the trivializing effect — of Hollywood movies, no matter how well intentioned the filmmakers.
But even then, before Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful and a whole spate of post Schindler’s List Holocaust-themed movies, the argument struck me as naïve. Hollywood, or commercial filmmaking in general, is just too insatiable a maw for any subject to be considered off limits, sacrosanct. And of course, The Night Porter and a whole wave of squalid Italian Nazi-sploitation pictures like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS had already come out years earlier.
Even today, The Night Porter (not a product of Hollywood, it’s true) could serve as Exhibit A in the critical argument that feature films are unsuited to any kind of cultural reckoning with the Holocaust. For me, the film exemplifies everything that’s most exasperating about movies: how beautiful or striking visuals are used to dress up a concept that’s overwhelmingly stupid. A member comment on the Netflix page for The Night Porter puts it best: “If you’re going to go here, better have a truly profound insight, or leave it alone.” Alas, they didn’t leave it alone.