Controversial upon its release in 1974, Liliana Cavani’s “The Night Porter” is a titillating tale of a graphic sadomasochistic relationship between a former Nazi SS Officer and a survivor from the concentration camp he was once in charge. Dirk Bogard plays Maximilian Aldorfer, now working a simple life as a hotel porter in post-war Vienna in an attempt to hide his past and escape impending punishment. Steadily mooching through life arranging gigolos for wealthy patrons of the hotel and various other general responsibilities, his somewhat peaceful post-Nazi life suddenly regresses when former prisoner Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling) arrives at the hotel reigniting the sadomasochistic bond they shared when in the Nazi concentration camp. What follows is a graphic exploration of the sexually charged relationship between the two that very much teeters dangerously on the edge of bad taste.
At times, proceedings can be compelling. The relationship was and is forbidden; it is raw and primitive, and the two leads portray such with an incredible subversive intensity that is often awkward to watch. Contrasting time frames that seemingly mirror a balance of power between the two, for example, is very interesting indeed. For the most part however, it becomes incessantly self-indulgent. Extended sequences of the highbrow arts occur all to frequently and completely overstay their welcome. If we’re not watching a half-naked man ballet dance, we’re in the opera…for about 10 minutes of screen time. Granted some of these scenes are a backdrop for an essential flashback, but even so, it becomes a bit too artsy and borders on pretention for modern tastes. It is European cinema at it’s most decadent; taboo subjects are dealt without regret, sexual desires are paraded without restriction and Cavani remains unapologetic with her portrayal of such sensitive, historical issues. The despair and tragedy of a Nazi concentration camp, and any consequent guilt from the Nazis themselves, is seemingly pushed to one side and instead replaced with titillating lust in its purest form. There are some bizarre presences of sexuality that appear purely to be controversial; the rudimentary art-house inclusion of homo-eroticism, for example, seems trivial and ultimately fruitless when it comes to both plot and character development. Inclusions like this blatantly masquerade style as substance, and it’s a trait that irks me about films of this ilk. Cloaking sex under a façade of an emotional subtext is easily branded “art” when it comes to European cinema. It’s something I, personally, can’t buy into.
Of course, the film isn’t unbearable. The understated yet exquisite sound design is the films most redeeming quality. A distinct presence of silence during intimate moments between the two really drives home their twisted relationship; the viewer becoming almost voyeuristic as a result and elevates their passion into something quite curious to watch unfold. The one stand out scene where Lucia performs for the SS in a bar sums their forbidden lust in a nutshell and is easily the finest the point of the film. It is here where we see the extent of Maximilian’s love for Lucia, and despite the aggressively dark and brutal turns their love takes, it is fundamentally love all the same.
If European expressions of sexuality are your thing, then there is plenty to like about The Night Porter, but if, like me, you aren’t swayed by pretentious forays into high society then this film won’t be for you. There is much to appreciate about Cavani’s most famous film, but when viewed through 2012 eyes, it all seems a bit Eurotrash rather than the exceptional artistic expression of power, lust and love it was originally intended to be.