The Night Porter is a very notorious cult classic that came out in 1974, directed by Liliana Cavani. She made some of the first in-depth documentaries on both the atrocities of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’sSoviet Union. On her mothers’ side she came from a line of anarcho-syndicalists, and on her father’s side bourgeois land-owners. Her most likely final theatrical feature was the decent Ripley’s Game, based on the third of the Patricia Highsmiths’ “Ripliad”. Her features over the years straddled between European arthouse film and exploitative cinema. The Night Porter remains her most famous—and infamous—film.
The story is about Maximilian Theo Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde), a night porter at a Vienna hotel. He has a dark secret: he was an SS officer. He had a sadomasochistic relationship with a girl Lucia at a concentration camp, it’s suggested that she was Jewish, but it’s never explicit. Their history is all told in flashback throughout the film. They rekindle their relationship many years later against a backdrop of a trial Max is about to face about his war crimes. However, he has been meeting with old Nazi chums who are destroying evidence to get away clean. They eventually find out about the girl and want her dead, so they hide away in a hotel room.
The film could have only been made in the ’70s: no way something about a deeply ambiguous relationship between a SS Officer and his victim/lover would be made in 2020 with current sensibilities. Due to its moral ambiguity, it remains a difficult film, but it is always fascinating, although the case could be made that it should’ve just indulged in its more exploitative tendencies as a 90-minute film instead of trying to please the arthouse crowd.
The two performances are solid, with Bogarde being the standout of the two and getting his teeth into the complexity. Bogarde was closeted throughout his career, which may have helped him feel the inner conflicts of his character. The flashbacks involving Charlotte Rampling are what sold the film, with her mostly undressed except for pieces of the SS uniform. The flashbacks are the most effective part of her performances, the then-contemporary scenes are mostly just her lying around the hotel room. The supporting cast of his Nazi chums are quite effective as well.
It’s neither a great provocative classic nor the exploitative trash that some critics have claimed it was, it’s somewhere in the middle. The pacing is a little off, and probably could’ve used a producer breathing down the director’s neck to pick up the pace. The performances from the two leads are what elevates The Night Porter, but it remains a thought-provoking film that could’ve only been made back in the wild 1970s.
CultFilms, which has been releasing lots of great ’60s/70s Italian cinema, has gotten hold of a new 4K restoration, which was approved by Cavani and is a big improvement on the previous Anchor Bay disc. The disc includes new interviews with both Cavani and Rampling, along with trailers from some other CultFilms titles, including such masterpieces as 8½ and Battle of Algiers.