Title: The Night Porter
Director: Liliana Cavani
Runtime: 118 Minutes
“It’s not a nice story,” so says The Night Porter’s tormented and tormenting protagonist, Max. “It’s not a romance, it’s biblical,” he rejoins, and though he is referring expressly to an isolated incident of grotesque decadence from his past as an officer in the SS, no better a summation of the film exists either in reviews at the time of its release, nor in the decades since where it has been woefully neglected by both critics and academia.
Indeed, its cult renown stems almost exclusively from the notorious barbs it provoked at the time of its release and of the influence it held over one of Europe’s most innovative and controversial contemporary film-makers, Lars Von Trier.
The Night Porter's writer and director, Liliana Cavani, created a pioneering work in numerous respects. Quite aside from the more prosaic observation that she was an auteur, working in an era thoroughly dominated by the radical political and artistic male film makers of the era in European cinema.
Historically, Cavani worked throughout an era of innovation and radicalism, for a generation that had few real memories of- or little influence upon- the Second World War and were yet deeply in thrall to its legacy. This resentment proved inspiration for philosophical and politically radical movements, which saw an outlet in cinema more than any other medium as it was seized upon by Europe's young artists and intellectuals as they reclaimed film as an art for the first time since its ignominious transgression into sound.
And of all the philosophical and political movements of the time, possibly the most sophisticated and nebulous of these- more so than anarchism, socialism or post-modernism- was the now neglected Situationism, first conceived by Guy Debourd among others in the 1960s. A movement so fleetingly powerful it provoked- at least in part- a near revolution in France, Situationism is somewhat marginalised in academic circles, and yet its legacy can be traced through some of the most transcendent and provocative art of the late twentieth and early twentieth century.
Cavani's film- though this wasn't her first feature- was probably the very first to explore the principles of the paradigm of the free interpretation and application of perceptions and symbols- at least with such obvious skill and deftness of touch. She was enabled, somewhat ironically, able to bring these ideas to an international audience as a consequence of the notoriety the film's subject matter attained, and the manner in which she courts surrealism, expressionism and controversy will strike a chord with those accustomed to the work of its most famous advocate, Lars Von Trier.
The Night Porter is, however, a film both very much of and ahead of his time. Notable critics of the time, including the never knowingly perceptive Roger Ebert fumed that it was "as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering." - Now, while such a statement may seem the sort of bluff, ignorant pomposity that is mercifully refined to parochial media outlets and reactionary websites -even in America- the depiction of a Nazi concentration camp victim (the captivating Charlotte Rampling) and her tormentor (Dirk Bogarde) locked together in an obsessive and animalistic sad-masochistic relationship was as brutal a paradigm shift as could be conceived.
Until The Night Porter, films concerning the second World War had either been servile venerations of allied troops in their noble struggle against the diabolic machinations of a cartoonish Nazi enemy, or profoundly worthy pieces about the suffering of the persecuted under German occupation. For the first time, Cavani subverted these stereotypes- not concerning herself with the morality or amorality of the Holocaust, or of Nazism itself, rather employing this set-piece with which to explore the nature of animalistic human desire, and existential suffering that transcends physical suffering and its mere occasion.
Viewing the film now, however, is to bear witness to a tutorial on the lost art of narrative film making that will, in itself, bewilder and frustrate young audiences raised on a diet of frenetic editing and computer generated imagery, for Cavani painstakingly constructs build intrigue and suspense- allowing the sublime craftsmanship of her cast to develop an atmosphere of tension, fear, lust and tenderness. All of which seems wholly anachronistic in a culture whose minds have been so barbarously atrophied by reality television, YouTube and Michael Bay.
No, this is a film happy to take its time, a slowly lilting and yet cruel melody, a dark poem with regret for the past, and desire to seek out the vestiges of bruised humanity. And for all the congratulation that Cavani invites, it is the performance of the films protagonist couple that ensure the film's right to demand classic status.
Boarder’s Max and Rampling’s Lucia share a thoroughly improbable but riveting chemistry as- drawn together thirteen years after he was her abusive captor at a Nazi concentration camp- they are increasingly and painfully made to realise that their desire for each other was so absolute it obliterated the moral vacuum in which their relationship provided; it trivialised the former political affiliations and relationships of both, and resisted the lash of hunger and imprisonment.
Max was right, it isn't a romance, it's biblical.
But it is magnificent.