The Night Porter (1974)
IMDB Summary: Thirteen years after WWII a concentration camp survivor (Rampling) and her tormentor, currently the night porter at a Vienna hotel, meet again and fall back into their sado-masochistic relationship.
Controversial in its time, The Night Porter is Liliana Cavani’s look into the dark unexplainable sexuality linked with possible trauma. It is also about the inescapable past and the different ways it can lure people together by sheer force. Place this into the context of the Holocaust and you have the main reason many people were offended by it (Roger Ebert among countless others). Personally I find it hard to be offended by something like this when other films continuously use the Holocaust for their own exploitative purposes no matter how effective and worthwhile they might be. Regardless, this film is only intermittently successful, simplistically exploring its thematic content, unable to do much else.
There are moments and devices used in The Night Porter that work very well. There is a scene in which Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) goes to the opera only to see Max (Dirk Bogarde) staring at her from a distant seat. Throughout the scene Lucia cannot help but keep looking back. Eventually she finds that Max is gone. The scene goes on for a while and nicely exhibits the theme of inescapable and inexplicable desire. There are also several non-dialogue scenes between lead actors Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling that carry the proper intensity. These scenes are appropriately silent in order to, again, show that these two characters are doing what is instinctual and fundamental to them by carrying on what initially brought them together. The ways the silent flashbacks are intercut with scenes from the present subtly link the past to the present. Cavani also did right by not attempting to explain why these two characters, particularly Lucia, are willing to not only throw themselves back into their source of trauma, but to sacrifice everything for it.
These are pretty much the only aspects of The Night Porter that worked for me. In its admirable and refreshing attempts to not explain the unexplainable, the film skimps on development in every department and in the end has little to say about anything and if it does, none of it is presented well. The film is also surprisingly tame and we really do not get any sense of what makes their relationship special to them when, once they get back together, they spend their time not really doing anything. Max and Lucia spend most of their time being hungry or lounging around. For a film about the inexplicable to be found in sexual relationships and connection, we get little sense of what that relationship consists of. While I am glad there is no explanation to the ‘why’ of their relationship, it would be nice to have any sense of what their relationship even is. When the basic groundwork of their dynamic is unclear, it is very difficult to care about anything the film has to offer or anyone in it.
The dialogue, when there is any, is almost laughably subpar. For a film that has little speaking, the dialogue should feel important and essential. Instead it just sounds like badly written filler. It also does not help when there is what seems to be a decent amount of dubbing for the supporting characters, making the dialogue sound even stiffer than it already is. The biggest problem the film has is its ludicrous Nazi subplot which takes up a large portion of the running time. Max and other Nazis are getting together and having meetings and making sure there are no witnesses to their atrocities seventeen years after the fact. Give me a break. This is all put into place so the circumstances that Max and Lucia get together in have an epic sense of sacrifice, allowing them to meet their inevitably bleak end. I wish this time had been put into exploring Max and Lucia’s interactions instead of creating a situation so poorly executed that it renders the entire film disposable. The Night Porter may be worthwhile in spurts and is admirable in its risk taking but it does not create an interesting portrait of a doomed and troubled relationship. It relies far too much on the mere fact that it is addressing these kinds of issues to actually explore a subject matter rife with potential.