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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>
He doesn't answer. It's off the hook.
[lights a cigarette]
Tell me, Bert. How long have you known Max?
Let's not talk about it.
You don't, er... dance for him anymore?
I've lost him.
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A controversial and shocking movie? Definitely, and the way some people today profess to be jaded about "The Night Porter" says more about our current culture than about the movie itself. Other persons who experienced the Holocaust first-hand have reacted negatively towards it for its portrayal of a destructive but loving relationship born amidst the Holocaust. Their objections are certainly understandable. There has also been, though, an awful lot of politically-correct garbage and pretentious nonsense written about "The Night Porter," much of which has missed or misinterpreted some of the strongest elements of the movie.
When I first saw "The Night Porter" in the early 1980's, it certainly had the power to shock me and many others, yet at the same time it offered a depth of aesthetic experience well beyond just shock for its own sake. These aesthetic qualities produce a sense of doom and sadness, yet also show beauty and love amidst the hopelessness.
Dirk Bogarde gives a really masterful performance as Max, a former Nazi SS man who bears a huge burden of guilt. After World War II, Max works at the main desk of a gorgeous old hotel in Vienna. Here he re-encounters Lucia, who survived the Nazi concentration camps, where she was a victim of Max's sadism. Bogarde's Max, and Charlotte Rampling as Lucia, do not say a word at first during their unexpected postwar encounter in the hotel, yet their understated expressiveness speaks paragraphs. The most controversial parts of the movie show the sort of sado-masochistic relationship which the two resume soon afterwards. While this relationship is very disturbing, with Max's sometimes cruel nature and the destructiveness of the mutual attraction, there is also a kind of love expressed by the two towards each other. Lucia is certainly a victim, yet she also consciously holds a power over Max. The sado-masochism is not glamourized, and I don't see any suggestion that these two lovers are any sort of role models. Yet they also evoke sympathy.
Throughout the movie, Bogarde is able to show a wide range of thoughts and emotions by just a slight movement of the corner of his mouth, or by the raising of an eyebrow. Rampling shows vulnerability and also the power that she has over Max. She sometimes appears like a sleek, sly cat, and at other times clearly like the victim of the camp horrors. Other actors such as Philippe Leroy, Isa Miranda and Amedeo Amodio also do a nice and sometimes subtle job of expressing the psychic state of their characters. Another character, an Italian who survived awful times, appears like a dog who has been beaten and fears another whipping.
"The Night Porter" can be slow-moving, yet this is punctuated by some very vivid scenes. For me, the most striking one is a flashback to a time during the war when Bert, a Nazi associate of Max, puts on a performance for a group of SS men and women, to the accompaniment of some gorgeous classical music. Not only does the scene seem to have a very sinister quality, but Amodio as Bert expresses an emotional longing which has important repercussions. There is also another very eerie flashback showing a musical, cabaret-style performance by Lucia for her SS captors. Something of the corruption, moral bankruptcy and hopelessness of Nazism is conjured up by this scene.
On the downside, some of the minor characters are portrayed in a caricaturish way, the voice dubbing can be off-putting, and some plot elements towards the end of the movie are at times very silly. Through those failures, though, I think the movie still succeeds aesthetically. Partly this is due to the appealing yet melancholy and ominous musical score by Daniele Paris and others, the disturbing magnetism of Max and Lucia, and the cinematography. Throughout the movie the beautiful, fascinating city of Vienna almost seems a character in itself.
"The Night Porter" is certainly not for everyone. In addition to its portrayal of a very disturbing, unconventional love relationship, it has a few brief scenes of graphic sex, and small bits of the ugliness of the camps. For those who don't mind getting through those parts, its aesthetic qualities can be very rewarding. Be warned though that the movie contains much ugliness along with its beauty. As Lucia says to someone who is trying to use pschoanalytical games to avoid his guilt and shame, "There is no cure."
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