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Péter Breznyik Berg
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. Written by
Ed Sutton <email@example.com>
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Many people have thought this was a loathsome one, and I can't blame them. When I saw this movie for the first time, it left a depressive and nauseating feeling. But I cannot agree that this is barely "nazi sexploitation" sleaze. In fact, "the Night Porter" is a perfect psychological study of masochism. And masochism is not cheap sleaze, it is a terrible addiction that even basically "normal" people can get trapped into, even though they know it will destroy them. Very much like drug addiction.
Besides, if you're into movies, it's pretty obvious right from the start that this is the work of real professionals. Director Liliana Cavani was not famous before she did this, but she certainly knew how to make a movie, and had learnt the best lessons from her more famous counterparts. As for the acting by the two main performers, Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, it is just top class, no more to say.
The movie starts on a bleak day in Vienna in the 1950's. It focuses right away on the character of Max (Dirk Bogarde), who works as a night porter at a fancy hotel. We soon find out that this ungrateful job is a hideout, as he is a former nazi. And the hotel is actually a secret meeting place for gatherings of former Nazis, who are well determined to let nobody track them down. One day,a group arrives at the hotel. Among them, a beautiful woman (Charlotte Rampling). Her deep blue gaze freezes as her eyes meet the night porter's. They have recognized each other. She was kept years before,as a young girl, at a concentration camp where the night porter was operating as an SS guard. It gets soon hinted at by flashbacks that they had a close relationship, which helped her survive physically, even if she was left mentally destroyed.
The woman, Lucia, is married to an orchestra director who tours in Vienna. He is just vaguely aware of her wife's past, and as she demands him to depart immediately, he convinces her to stay "for just a few days". Lucia is in fact desperately asking for help, but her bland husband doesn't understand. As for Max, he is both afraid to be reported, and at the same time irresistibly attracted. He attends the opera performance where Lucia's husband is playing, while she is in the public. They sit there in the dark, obsessed by each other's presence while "the Magic Flute" is playing, but none of them makes a single move. That's a chilling scene.
Lucia's husband is surprised as, when they are about to leave, she demands to stay "for just a few days". It is already too late. Lucia has lived through hell, then built a new life abroad and more or less forgotten. But it seems life doesn't taste anything for her anymore, just no more suffering that's all. With Max, she experienced a horrible but passionate love affair, and in the deep of her heart, she remained addicted to that atrocious intensity. She is like a former alcoholic who has quit for years but suddenly falls back.The rest of the story is predictable. Max and Lucia find each other again, and cannot part anymore,whatever it may lead them to. Actually, it can only lead them to death. Max's nazi colleagues spy on each other constantly, and soon find out about the affair. Both Max and Lucia become dangerous people who must be eliminated.
We learn more through flashbacks about the past relationship between Max and Lucia. The key scene of the movie takes place in a smoky and sinister officer's mess, where masked men are playing a gloomy tune on an accordion. Half naked Lucia wearing an SScap performs a song by Marlene Dietrich which says "If I were to wish for something, I would like to be just a little happy, because if I were too happy, I would long for suffering". Couldn't be more explicit. As she has finished her show, she joins Max at a table, and he has a present for her in a box. A horrible present. The severed head of a prisoner who kept bothering her. Lucia recoils incredulous as she opens the box, then looks in Max's eyes and sips in her glass of wine. What more extreme love present can a man make than killing for the woman he loves? This scene is almost unbearable, and it's precisely the film's essential five minutes.
So if you don't like this film, it sounds like a normal reaction. It's actually difficult to "like" it , but one can find it interesting and important. Especially those who have experienced sexual abuse by relatives, drug addiction or alcoholism, or people who are related or engaged to such people. That makes quite a few. When one is plunged into destruction, a solution is to take a liking for it. But it's an extreme solution, which gets you intoxicated for life, and may lead you to seek total destruction as an only way out.
The phenomenon described in the movie has been observed many times, even though it is difficult to understand or accept for an outsider. When people are abused and isolated for a long time, whether in prison or in their own family, it usual that they develop a bond with their abuser, as he or she becomes their main affective reference. This is commonly referred to as "the Stockholm syndrome".
Better you don't watch this if you're feeling down.
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