The Night Porter (1974)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Psychological Drama, Erotic Drama, Reunion Films  |   Run Time - 118 min.  |   Countries - Italy, USA  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Damned in the United States yet praised in European quarters, Liliana Cavani's visceral psychosexual thriller invited controversy by focusing on the twisted bond between a Nazi and his former prisoner/lover. Max (Dirk Bogarde) and Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) cross paths once again in a Vienna hotel c. 1958, and reconsummate a depraved affair. Inevitably, some took the movie to task for what they saw as exploitative, crass and lubricious; many detractors excoriated it for trivializing the Holocaust. Historical veracity doesn't seem to be on Cavani's agenda, however. She constructs a deliberately unreal phantasmorgia onscreen, where Nazi regalia and imagery become not echoes of the literal past, but connotative symbols of sadomasochism per se, often presented in a dreamlike context - as in an oneiric (and violence-free) glimpse of a Nazi carnival torture ride for Jewish girls. Indeed, the movie feels most impressive given how successfully it cross-sections s&m as a conceptual phenomenon, severed from a historical framework. The film gradually becomes a dark immersion into the psyches of two individuals who enjoy giving and receiving pain, and an orchestra of sadomasochistic nuance. Nowhere is this more evident than in the picture's final act. Trapped by their pursuers in a barren apartment, the torturer and his victim/accomplice gradually starve themselves to death, clinging psychologically (and physically) to one other and growing wan and emaciated; at one point, Lucia walks barefoot over broken glass, lacerating the soles of her feet -- an act that single-handedly reveals her need (and desire) for self-abuse. Cavani has, in a few brilliant strokes, stripped away the sex and reduced her two diseased lovers to the core of pathological need. She is bolstered throughout by radical, courageous performances from Bogarde and Rampling, who she doubtless cast given their shared involvement in Visconti's Nazi-themed masterpiece The Damned five years earlier. Though the movie is as difficult to watch as one may expect from its premise, it is also brilliantly conceived and executed, and - in its own bizarre way - effective enough to merit serious reappraisal.