TRASH CINEMA ESSENTIAL MOVIE
I struggled a bit over whether to include The Night Porter on this website. Clearly, it is an art film. However, it has it’s sleazy, salacious aspects.
When The Night Porter was released back in the 70s, the critics were up in arms over it’s depiction of sexual slavery in the Nazi death camps. The critics found the depiction prurient, intended to excite the audience sexually with it’s depraved images. Considering that it had only been 25 years since six million Jews had perished in the camps, their point of view is understandable.
Even now, the scenes in which Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling) entertains Maximilian Theo Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde) and the rest of the Nazi brass have an unsettling erotic charge.
You see, Lucia plainly consents to be Max’s sex toy in the hope of surviving the death camps.
After the war is over, a chance meeting between Lucia and Max leads to them resuming the relationship.
The thing is, when you mix survival and the power of life and death with human sexuality, it may be sick, but it would be hard to imagine a more powerful and addictive basis for a relationship. How this relationship plays out is the point of the film.
Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling are magnetic as the leads. You cannot look away. They burn a hole in the screen and scar your brain.
There’s a moment when Lucia has barricaded herself in the bathroom and Max is demanding that she let him in. Lucia has prepared a surprise for Max. When the surprise is discovered, the play of conflicting emotions that play over Dirk Bogarde’s face manages the trick of being laugh out loud funny, pathetic and moving, all at the same time. Anyone who has ever been in an self-destructively obsessive sexual relationship will feel a tingle of recognition. Charlotte Rampling matches Bogarde beat for beat.
The scenes that don’t involve the couple fail to achieve the same blinding level of revelation, but they are still excellent. Writer/director Liliana Cavani observes with a keen insight into human nature throughout.
As a director, Cavani has been reviled and/or ignored by the critical community. I suspect it’s because her films are too honest and cut too deep. Caviani’s film Ripley’s Game failed to get wide distribution in spite of being one of the best films of 2002. She is long overdue for a critical reevalution.
There is one observation I would like to make about The Night Porter for modern audiences. The Night Porter explores it’s subject thoroughly and doesn’t rush through it. This deliberate pace may frustrate younger viewers who are used to MTV editing.
In the end, The Night Porter is a one of a kind love story with unforgettable protagonists. It’s psychological complexity and acuity have a real power to provoke and inspire rumination. There aren’t too many films you can say that about, past or present. As long as you aren’t expecting a thrill a minute, you should not be disappointed.