Monday, 29 December 2014

THE NIGHT PORTER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Classic NAZI S&M on Criterion BD&DVD

The Criterion Collection's
BluRay Special Edition
is quite the treat!!!
The Night Porter (1974)
Dir. Liliana Cavani
Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Liliana Cavani's 1974 depiction of the post-war resumption of a violent sadomasochistic relationship between a former S.S. officer (the prim, grim, perversely dashing Dirk Bogarde) and a concentration camp survivor (an icily sensual, waif-like Charlotte Rampling, alternating twixt childlike pleading and a grinning, thin-lipped malevolence), is one of a mere handful of pictures to inspire genuine revulsion amongst critics and audiences (both upon its initial release and even to this day).

Dirk eyes Charlotte's open sore.
The fun is only beginning.
On the surface, this is certainly not hard to understand since an easy reading and response to the disturbing and sickening subject matter is the sort which prompts immediate, knee-jerk cries (from the mostly clueless) of wholesale condemnation, if not outright dismissal. Understanding that so many scribes and viewers automatically filed the film into a folder marked Nazi Sex Pornography is one thing, accepting it is quite another.

The genuine horrors of war and totalitarianism are hard enough to fathom, but I suspect an even greater understanding of mankind's propensity for evil and cruelty can only really be examined and assessed properly within the context of art that eschews any sense of propriety which far too many cud-chewers expect, even when the subject is horrific as it is here. If anything, the bravery of filmmaker Liliana Cavani and stars Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling must be regarded, not with disdain and derision, but with meritorious acclaim and the most fervent and passionate defence if one is to truly regard art as both a reflection of mankind, but also a microscope under which all aspects of humanity are placed upon a slide for our eyes to consider close up and in gut-wrenching detail.

Concentration Camp Dentistry
Cavani has made a film that refuses to flinch from the horror of Nazi Germany and how its influence was so deep-seeded that the after-effects seem identical, if not more insidious than what unravelled in the first place. This is a film that's impossible to accept in one sitting. There's nothing that's easily digestible and quite possibly, never will be.

The culpability of MADNESS
Then again, the vile reality of Nazism and other forms of national policies built on the foundations of hatred and repression are themselves not the sort of thing anyone wants to assimilate in order to understand the deep degrees of horror in which, humanity as a whole has been cattle-branded with a kind of culpability in the madness, so that our own shame is the tool by which to erase the potential of it ever happening again.

Clearly not a garden variety
hotel night-desk clerk
And yet, even as I write this, the madness of totalitarianism continues in various forms and to varying degrees the world over. As such, Cavani's film holds a place of even greater importance now and for the future than even its makers hoped for upon its first release. The Night Porter, as revolting as it is, must be seen and must be regarded seriously.

The events of the film are simple enough to summarize. It's 1957. Max (Bogarde) works as a night porter in a swanky Vienna hotel. Quiet, efficient and officious, he tends to the needs of the guests with an almost slavish fastidiousness. No request is too tall an order. He even matter-of-factly pimps out a stud bellboy to service a decadent, mildly repulsive old countess who requires a hunky bedfellow to keep her warm on cold, lonely nights.

Max is a former S.S. officer whose duty included the medical "welfare" of prisoners in a concentration camp. He belongs to a secret society of prominent Nazi war criminals who are devoted to eliminating any potential witnesses that could bring them down for their heinous activities. Most of the men seek the sort of exoneration that will restore them to elite positions in German society. Max has goals that are far less lofty. He wishes to toil in obscurity as the hotel's night porter, earning a modest living whilst at the same time, commanding a respect, albeit meagre, within the confines of his tiny little world.

Charlotte Rampling as Lucia
One fateful night, he comes face-to-face with Lucia (Rampling), the wife of a famous American symphony conductor staying in the posh hotel. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Max took a special liking to Lucia when, as the daughter of a prominent socialist, she was incarcerated in the concentration camp he was stationed in. To survive, Lucia succumbed to Max's sexual desires of the sadomasochistic variety, but as the years crept on, their relationship developed into a perverse co-dependence which, under the circumstances seemed to go bove and beyond a mere one-sided and exploitative relationship, but one of mutual desires.

Now, years later, Max and Lucia pick up their torrid passions where they left off and soon, they're embroiled in a heated relationship. Unfortunately, Max's Nazi colleagues don't take too well to this. The secret society demands that all witnesses be "taken care of". With the murderous Nazis keeping close watch on his every move, Max locks Lucia alone with him in his tiny flat and their relationship of sadomasochism reaches even more intense heights. As it does, the reality of leaving the apartment could mean death for both of them. The couple are now on a strangely even keel as they're both prisoners. Once the rationed food in the apartment is gone, the couple starve to a point of emaciation and soon realize what must be done. Max dons his S.S. uniform and Lucia, the sexy shimmering garb she was adorned with in the concentration camp. Together, they leave the apartment to face whatever fate holds in store for them.

With this relatively simple narrative, Cavani carves out deeply complex thematic, dramatic and emotional levels which are, to be sure, provocative, but transcend that of being strictly prurient. Rituals of the most pure, yet clearly demented kind represent the sick entitlement of the Nazis, but also their desires to infuse life in the camp with fragments of cultural expression which provide some semblance of familiarity to life before the madness of WWII. We not only follow the juxtaposed then and now relationship of sadomasochism between Max and Lucia, but Cavani emphasizes ritual even in the day-to-day existence of the S.S. with flashbacks to cabaret-styled entertainment (featuring Lucia as a topless chanteuse adorned in trousers, suspenders and S.S. hat) and even the performance of a ballet featuring a near-naked male dancer displaying his prowess as an artist whilst also offering up the spectacle of his gorgeously-sculpted body for the edification of the Nazi officers.

Yes, even the S.S. appreciated lithe male dancers.
The dancer even appears at Max's hotel to perform in the privacy of an empty hotel room for Max. The dancer must continue offering up his body on display long after the war has ended, just as Lucia must fill the gaps created in her "normal" life by reigniting sadomasochism with the man who was once her captor. With Lucia in particular, her need to continue with the exploitation of her body and soul after the war, is as much an extension of the prisoner mentality pounded into her by her former incarceration, as it is a type of empowerment by turning her former captor into a slave, or prisoner who can only be truly fulfilled by Lucia's command over him on a sexual level.

The repugnance of this is surely what caused critics and audiences to emit bilious condemnation of The Night Porter, but in fact is the very thing that rubs their noses in the notion of complicity in such evils. The exploitative elements of the Nazi aesthetic being tied into sexual gratification works on two levels - that of the participation in said activities by characters in the film and the movie's contemporary audience who are forced to participate in sexual dominance and subjugation, albeit that which is clearly reversed, at least initially, in Lucia's favour.

That captor and prisoner, both become prisoners of latent desires brought to the fore by the evils of war and its lingering influence in peacetime. This is surely hard to accept, but accept we must if we're to become open to the true and genuine horrors of war.


The Night Porter is currently available in a brand new 2K transfer on both Blu-Ray and DVD formats in a sumptuous new home entertainment offering from the Criterion Collection. Included on the disc are several important extra features: an all-new interview with director Cavani which offers a wealth of illumination upon the production and thematic concerns of the film, a gorgeous booklet that includes an essay by scholar Gaetana Marrone plus a 1975 interview with Cavani. The real gem of the package is the inclusion of Women of the Resistance a fifty-minute 1965 documentary by Cavani which focuses upon female partisans who survived the German invasion of Italy.

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