||The Night Porter
1974 - R - 122 Mins.
|Director: Liliana Cavani|
|Producer: Esa De Simone, Robert Gordon Edwards|
|Written By: Liliana Cavani|
|Starring: Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti |
|Review by: Jake Cremins
'The Night Porter' is an offensive film. This is not an adjective I'm crazy about using, generally. If watching a lot of movies has proved anything, it's that explicit content in a film has nothing to do with its quality; that lies in how and why it is presented. I've seen thoroughly innocuous, G-rated family films I've despised, and movies rife with bloodletting and sexual content that I've admired. And vice versa.
Bogarde and Rampling, in two performances as fine as they are wasted.
It is criminally unfair to label a movie "offensive" merely because it is violent, or has graphic sex. 'The Night Porter' is the subject of much controversy because of those very things, but there was nothing in the film's content I objected to particularly. I've seen worse. I even found the story to be a bold and intriguing one: a woman in 1957 Vienna comes face-to-face with the Nazi who tormented her in a concentration camp, and finds that some part of herself still yearns for his cruel treatment. No matter how good or bad 'The Night Porter' is, this plot would have likely resulted in the same outcry, but I really think that this could have made a great film.
So no, I did not find intrinsically offensive the scene where Charlotte Rampling sings a German torch song for Nazi men while wearing an SS uniform, minus the shirt, and is presented with a severed head as her reward. Nor was I offended by the sight of Rampling grinding Dirk Bogarde's feet into broken glass as a prelude to lovemaking, or by the flashbacks of the various horrors Bogarde inflicted upon her when she was a prisoner in a concentration camp. What offended me was that none of these scenes had any justification, or signified anything. For a film that allegedly deals with such serious matters, 'The Night Porter' is amazingly indifferent and thoughtless. It would be a bad film anyway, with a ludicrous plot and unbelievable characters, but for it to dredge up the Holocaust itself and reduce it to a mere plot device makes it truly appalling. It's all the more obnoxious because it is so slow and moody that it is surely intended to be Serious Art, which is apparently justification enough for its excesses, for it not to explain anything, and for it to be both off-puttingly graphic and stupefyingly boring.
The story starts off very well. The woman (Charlotte Rampling) arrives at a small hotel with her husband, an opera conductor on tour. They are chatting pleasantly until she asks for the key and sees her tormentor (Dirk Bogarde) behind the desk and is stunned into silence. He has noticed her first, and tries to call as little attention to himself as possible. Then Rampling and her husband go off to their room, the hotel quiets down for the night, and the porter and the conductor's wife spend lots of time staring into space with troubled expressions, flashes of past incidents running through their minds.
Intriguing stuff, and (so it seems at first) bravely handled. The porter finds himself fascinated by the woman, and his looks at her become more bold, as though he's inviting her to accuse him. Meanwhile, she is paralyzed by indecision, and cursed with a husband too dense to notice that something is eating her alive. The husband goes, she stays to shop, and meanwhile we're waiting for the two to finally confront one another.
They finally do, and the entire film falls apart. For nearly an hour, we've been wondering what she will say to him, what he will say to her. This is going to be the most pivotal scene in the film, we're thinking. We're wrong. He enters her room, he slaps her, she tries to escape, and when he blocks the door they embrace and begin an erotic wrestling match on the floor, she cackling like a madwoman, he declaring his love for her. This happens in almost less time than it takes to read it. We have been given no hint that this will happen, in a setup that finds time for a ballet performance, a trip to the opera and an utterly unnecessary character named Mario who is killed before we figure out what he has to do with the rest of the film. It's kind of amazing that Liliana Cavani, the writer and director, would go through the trouble of telling such a loaded story and then screw up its crucial scene so thoroughly.
It gets worse from there, with a subplot about a small group of war criminals who stage mock trials in order to remove both psychological and physical guilt (they alternate between long discussions and burning of damning documents). Bogarde is a member, and his trial is coming up next. Again, an intriguing idea, and again, destroyed by thoughtless treatment. For instance, how the group treats the living witnesses they seek out is more than a little murky. Surely they kill them? I guess, but they seem to feel no urgency about it, and after discovering Rampling's identity find the time for several long, boring conversations with both her and Bogarde about the whole situation. After Rampling decides to move into Bogarde's apartment, the group's brilliant plan entails letting them stay in and starve to death, instead of just shooting them. How artistic.
Rampling and Bogarde treat their predicament with aplomb, finding new energy to chain themselves to the bathroom wall and grind broken glass into each other's feet and faces. These scenes are not merely unerotic, but inexplicable: what are we supposed to think about their relationship? We are provided with endless sex scenes, but in the entire film they say barely eight lines of dialogue to one another. Are we watching a twisted romance? A portrait of fragile minds broken by trauma? A desperate attempt to purge vile memories by reliving them? No clue is provided.
This all goes on for a very, very long time, and by the end of the ordeal it was hard for me to remember that anything in the beginning had been worth seeing. What we have here is a film that starts off believably, disturbing and intriguing, and then takes a left turn into the utterly ludicrous. Since the movie is about the aftereffects of the Holocaust, this is not merely silly and boring, but also insulting and, yes, offensive.
The real tragedy is that the entire premise, right down to the sadomasochism, could have been made into an entirely different film, one that dealt honestly and thoughtfully with its characters' motivations and explored what it might actually be like to survive the Holocaust and be faced with a situation like this. 'The Night Porter' does not deal with anything honestly, or explore anything. Its Nazi imagery is an excuse, a placeholder of significance put in a film that does not bother to create any itself. How shameful it all is.