Art and the Limits of Morality: The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte 1974)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Film Festival.

Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte 1974) is probably the most twisted film I’ve seen in my twenty-eight years of life on Earth. Not, it should be said, because of the sexual kinkiness, or even the portrayal of a twisted psyche, but because of what it threatens to do to the viewer’s vicarious identification. From an artistic perspective, it’s a pity the film doesn’t follow through.

Max (Dirk Bogarde) is the night porter at a hotel in Vienna in the 1950s. His life putters along until one day in walks Lucia (the inimitable Charlotte Rampling) on the arm of her husband (Marino Masé), and when their eyes inevitably meet they are both shocked, pulled out of the moment before slowly being drawn back in. But the moment lingers in the form of intrusive flashbacks (edited by Franco Arcalli). Max, you see, was the Nazi officer who tormented the teenaged Lucia during her time at a concentration camp. And he’s still hanging out with Nazis.

Told from Max’s point of view, the film leaves no doubt that he fetishized Lucia, became obsessed with her, and turned her into his exalted sex slave. Less clear in all this is how Lucia felt, for even in the film’s most famous sequence—when a topless slacks- and suspenders-clad Rampling does a cabaret performance at a German bar—Lucia’s seemingly enthusiastic performance contains hints still of reluctance and disgust.

Back in the 1950s, Lucia is understandably terrified at the possibility of the night porter’s gaining entrance to her room (her husband is annoyingly oblivious), whereas Max essentially starts stalking her. During an opera performance of The Magic Flute, he takes a seat behind her in the audience and keeps his eyes on her; she knows he’s there but refuses to acknowledge his presence; strangely enough, the tension feels sexual.

This is perhaps the most morally challenging aspect of the film. We’re introduced to Max before we know anything about him, and he seems like an average Joe. He’s sympathetic, and the tight narrative focus naturally induces us to identify with him. Then, after Lucia appears, we’re hit over the head with the first flashback, which makes it clear that Max is anything but innocent. And yet his 1950s characterization doesn’t change. Having already gained our sympathies, he’d need to do something downright heinous in the narrative present to lose us.

As Mozart’s arias about undying love float on the soundtrack (music by Daniele Paris), we cut to an extended flashback of the first time Max out-and-out worships Lucia, and as hard as it may be to even think about, we start to suspect that she had positive feelings for him, too. It turns out we’re right. 1950s Lucia ditches her husband, Max attacks her in her room, and they end up kissing passionately on the floor.

Wait, what?

Here’s the thing: Pretty much every attempt to explain their dynamics with the full power and force of the situation fails. Sexually traumatized people sometimes work through their trauma by reenacting it with a trusted and consensual partner, but the film has Lucia reenacting things with her original perpetrator, still unrepentant. A similar explanation could be given for Lucia’s energetic cabaret performance: Yes, she does it basically at gunpoint, but delivering an irony-drenched performance on her own initiative could be seen as trying to re-empower herself however she can—until the scene ends with Max presenting her with a severed head in a box, horrifying her. This grotesque gesture of love (the head belonged to a prisoner who often picked on Lucia) is presumably not a one-time occurrence, and having to face Max’s penchant for cruelty would, I think, keep Lucia’s Stockholm syndrome at bay. A third possibility might be that Lucia’s special treatment brought her to identify with the Nazis, much like how Tom Cruise was recruited into Scientology (Editor’s note: This is NOT to compare Scientology to Nazism or fascism! They’re different.), but that she saw the error of her ways after the war. Her reignited passion with Max would thus also be a re-embrace of the Third Reich. But when Nazis and Nazism come directly into play later in the plot, she declines to declare herself one way or the other.

No, the one explanation that makes sense to me is also the most banal one, and if it weren’t for the existence of the Nazi subplot, discussed below, The Night Porter would fully deserve its reputation as a Nazisploitation flick. Lucia’s life after the war is an upper-class one; her husband is a world-renowned American conductor, and she does her shopping in the metropolises of the world. How boring it all must quickly have become! She longs for the intensity of her affair with her Nazi master but fears the concomitant depths of depravity. When Max attacks her again, she is relieved to be able to give in, morality be damned. As you can see, very little of this has to do with Nazism per se, even if it’s based on a true story.

The subplot does, though. Max is a member of a rump group of Nazi loyalists who, led by psychotherapist Hans (Gabriele Ferzetti), conduct mock trials in which they defend their actions to expiate their guilt. (Sounds like the opposite of what a psychotherapist does, but what do I know?) As part of this process, they bring in eyewitnesses and, after a vague but I’d think pretty important process of interrogation, “file them away.” Lucia, the group learns, is Max’s only surviving eyewitness, and they urge him to bring her to his trial. Some reviewers have questioned why they don’t just kidnap her, and I think they would’ve, except that Max is hesitant about the trial itself. He knows what’ll happen to his beloved “little girl” afterward, and he’d rather live with both her and his guilt than lose her again.

At this point, he appears to be choosing between two options that are both attractive to him, his friends or his love. We may not understand his relationship with Lucia (and my arguments above suggest that it’s easy to misunderstand it), but we see that they’re happy in a romantic if not moral sense, and so we root for them. The film has more or less gotten us to identify with an unrepentant Nazi.

From this point on, Bogarde delivers a hairsplitting fine line of a character interpretation. Max gradually comes to admit that he feels guilt and shame for his actions. When a fellow Nazi, who has done his mock trial, declares that he regrets nothing, Max throws up a sarcastic Sieg Heil, which to his utter disgust the others in attendance emulate genuinely. We see his disillusionment with Nazism, but not his virulent denunciation. If his relationship with Lucia in the camp led her to see him in a better light than the other Nazis (albeit he’s still underwater morally), the same relationship seems to have opened his eyes a tad to the unspeakable dehumanization that she and the other prisoners underwent (but just a tad).

This fine line, once we see it, leads to some unexpected humor. Basically, Max is feeling nostalgia for a better time in his life; it just so happens that his salad days were during the Third Reich, and the incongruity in our understanding of his emotional state—familiar structurally but repellent in particulars—causes us to laugh while chastising ourselves for laughing. (I’m reminded of the humorous illustration of Hitler looking despondently at a lengthy document that has the heading “GAS BILL.”)

But it’s here that the film begins to lose its nerve. Convinced that Lucia poses a danger to all of them, yet unwilling to force the hand of a comrade, the Nazis decide to blockade the lovers in Max’s apartment and starve them out—I’m guessing at the motivations here, as in truth the tactics are incoherent: At one point they shoot at Max when he appears on the balcony. Rather than dive deeper into the lovers’ twisted sexual relationship, however, the film portrays them in various moods of starved lethargy, bored out of their minds. Though focused still on Max and his narrative appendage, Lucia, we no longer know what goes on inside his head beyond his basic determination to, um, kill themselves slowly? They forget that the key part of breaking a siege is to send for help. By this point, the film has admitted that Nazism isn’t really the point anymore, and even romanticism has given way to pure realism: When it’s you against the world, the world tends to win. (So maybe it’s a critique of Nazi imperialism after all.)

I say that the film loses its nerve, which supposes that “Nazism is bad” is an opinion universally agreed upon. In an ideal world, yes, but not in our world, nor the world of the film’s crew, as an anecdote in the “true story” link above attests. In that ideal world, we’d be able to have a film unencumbered by moral scruples that could rigorously explore the minuscule space between Nazi atrocities and Nazism as an increasingly empty signifier of evil, a totemic fetishism exemplified by terms such as “feminazi” and “grammar nazi,” not to mention “Nazisploitation” itself. Alas, the film we do have insists on dressing Max up in his SS uniform before dragging Lucia to commit suicide-by-fellow-Nazi’s-bullet.

Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.

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