The Night Porter: Review. By Alif Majeed.
I have heard The Night Porter described as a cross between Death in Venice and The Boys from Brazil before watching it. That description never made sense for me as the latter came out a few years after it. I get what it means though, with the former and its similar themes of obsession and being besotted at one’s peril when even when having the choice of walking away. Add The Boys from Brazil with its themes of Gestapo agents in hiding and conspiracies relating to that.
The movie, set about a decade after World War II, has Dirk Bogarde as Max working as a night porter at a hotel in Vienna, where he seems resigned to his ordinary existence. A chance reunion with Lucia, a woman from his past, played by Charlotte Rampling stirs up memories and echoes of the past with him being a former SS officer and her, a prisoner and survivor at the concentration camp. The moment they set eyes on each other again after all those years, their humdrum existence takes a turn that cannot be reversed. Slowly, through flashbacks, we get to see glimpses of their shared past where he was both her protector and tormentor at various points at the Holocaust camp.
The Night Porter had some extreme initial reactions from the critics at the time of its release. But it owes its reputation as a cult classic to the sordid reputation that precedes the movie itself. It is also shoehorned as a Nazisploitation movie, which is quite a stretch.
For starters, it is significantly better than most movies in the genre, including the Ilsa trilogy, the Nazploitation genre’s “crowning glory”, and should not be an apples and oranges comparison to those movies.
Another reason it shouldn’t to be clubbed together is that those movies wear their exploitation legacy on their collective sleeves and even revel in its status as grind house flicks. I’m pretty sure Liliana Cavani, the director of the Night Porter, did not intend for that to happen.
The two leads, Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, were also in an unfortunate position of enduring most of the terrible reviews, which were not for their performances but for taking part in the movie. But it was mighty brave of both the actors to take up the movie. Their performances are too effective, and the two sell the characters need to continue their torture and pleasure games rather than live out their new normal life.
Its depiction of the Stockholm syndrome when Lucia feels compassion for Max, her past tormentor cum savior also makes sense in the movie’s context, which includes the things he had done for her. A shocking scene in one flashback that emulate the biblical tale of Salome is something that sticks and shakes you up when you think of it. The level of passion and devotion that was formed between them is pretty tough to shack off, especially when you believe in their performances that make it hard to take your eyes off them.
Even when Max’s fellow Gestapo officers believe Lucia is a threat that needs to be eliminated, their bond is formidable because of whatever came before on screen.
But the fascination of trying to figure out how their relationship plays out soon gives way to mild irritation as the movie progresses. The pace slacks off as soon as they get together and after the SS officers cut off their supplies to tire them out. Towards the end, I was as tired as the characters were.
What also really takes the movie down a notch is the flashback scenes set at the concentration camps which borders on the comical. The theatrically on display with the concentration camp scenes makes those portions unintentionally funny and uneven.
The Night Porter may put you off for the depiction of the roles of the survivors and the perpetrators during the Third Reich, but it is a must-watch for the lovely performances by Rampling and Bogarde. Whatever works on screen is because of the dedication the leads show towards the characters and themselves.
The Night Porter 4k restoration is available on Blu-ray now
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