The Night Porter Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: A Nazi Love Story

Its a thin line between exploitation and art.
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Normally I’d say that the space between True Art and exploitation is wide and wandering, but if The Night Porter teaches us anything, it's that the line is actually pretty thin.  It's story is pure sleaze - A Nazi SS officer reunites with his former concentration-camp prisoner thirteen years after the war.  A sadomasochistic love affair ensues.  But in the hands of director Liliana Cavani, it becomes something more - a meditation on love, guilt, and redemption.  It reminds me a bit of Boxcar Bertha, a typical Roger Corman B-Grade flick elevated by the talents and artistic brilliance of a young Martin Scorsese.

Dirk Bogarde plays Max a former SS Officer who now lives a quiet life as a night porter in Vienna, Austria.  By chance his former prisoner, and sort-of lover/slave, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) visits Vienna with her husband and winds up staying in the hotel where Max works.  Slowly, over several nights Max and Lucia rekindle their relationship as master and slave.

The film moves between this present and their time together during the war where Max often tortured, humiliated, and forced Lucia to perform various sex acts.  Though not explicitly stated, we gain an understanding that Lucia submits to Max, cruel though he may be, because he does care for her in his own way and thus she will survive.  When she meets him again, she is somehow drawn to him  through some version of Stockholm Syndrome, or fear, or perhaps because some part of her enjoyed the humiliation.  

Max likewise comes to her, protects her even, though she could easily bring the authorities and justice to him.  He’s dealing with guilt over what he did to her and many others during the war while at the same time recognizing he still gets off on the power trip, and continues to engage in cruelty with her (though this time it is mutually accepted).

Cavani digs deep into these ideas.  She wants us to confront difficult subjects and come up with, perhaps not answers, but at least a greater understanding of them.  Max and Lucia’s relationship brings up questions about guilt and pleasure, pain and survival.  Lucia allowed her to be subjected all sorts of humiliations in order to survive and yet she comes back to this man who she ought to hate.  Does she really love him? Or is she still afraid?  Does she still cling to the one man, however evil, that gave her some respite from the horrors of the Holocaust?  In 1974, when the film was made, sadomasochism wasn’t as understood or accepted as it is now, and certainly it wasn’t a part of mainstream cinema, and yet here Cavani treats it with a tolerating hand.

If their story was the only one of the film, I might be able to call The Night Porter a great film, but alas, there is a subplot that we must now consider.  Max is confronted by a small group of Nazis who want to put him on trial.  Not to find him guilty of war crimes, but to assuage their fears that Max may lead the authorities to the group.  They question him over several days looking for papers that might convict him or any possible witnesses to his crimes still living.  

There is a rumor about Lucia and the men continue to ask Max about her.  He denies her existence but eventually must lock her inside his apartment where they hide out from them.  There is an interesting story inside of that, but Cavani doesn’t know how to handle it, making it feel out place as a thriller trapped inside this strange love affair.  The Max/Lucia story is so delicate that bringing in this hamfisted Nazi trial tears it to pieces.

The movie was understandably very controversial when it came out.  Today we’re more accepting of the not-so-mainstream sex (in fact most of that seems pretty tame by modern standards) but we cringe at the whole "maybe the girl who survived the Holocaust actually kind of liked it" bits.  Those are admittedly hard to take, but I don’t think Cavini was trying to paint broad strokes about all survivors, but rather tell a more singular story about how, perhaps, not all Nazis were wholly evil, and how maybe one woman could learn to not only survive, but even enjoy certain amounts of depravity.  Or maybe I’m off into the deep end.  It's hard to say.

The Night Porter is not a film for everyone.  My wife made me watch it after her and the kid had gone to bed in fact. It is also not by any means a perfect film, or even a great one.  But it is absolutely better than the exploitation synopsis would have you believe. It raises some very interesting ideas and for the most part presents them very well.

The video presentation is very good.  The colors are consistent and well displayed.  Blacks are dark and defined.  There are a few moments of visible tears and other artifacts. There is also some very noticeable and consistent grain throughout the film.  But overall, this is a very big upgrade from previous versions of the movie, and considering its age and history, this is likely the best it will ever look.

Audio is likewise very good.  It's not a particularly complicated sound design, but the music and ambient noise come through crisp and clear, and the dialog is consistently easy to understand.  Though it is an Italian production, the audio track is English only.  Finding this strange, I did a little research and found that up until and through most of the '70s Italian movies did little to create quiet sound stages.  As such, pretty much all of their films had to be overdubbed in post production.  Once you start overdubbing like that, there is really no difference in having the dubs in Italian or English, and so we’re presented with the English versions.

The disk includes a new interview with director Liliana Cavani as well as the 1965 documentary, Women of the Resistance, composed of interviews of female partisans who survived the German invasion of Italy.  Both give some interesting insight into where the director was coming from with this film and her motivation to tell such an unconventional story.  The booklet features an essay by Gaetana Marrone and a 1975 interview with Cavani.

I love that Criterion not only presents some of the great classics of world film but doesn’t shy away from the controversial ones.  The Night Porter walks the line between exploitive trash and artistic cinema.  It raises important, if difficult, questions and isn’t afraid to make its audience uncomfortable.  With this new Criterion release, we get the movie in as pristine a version as we’ll ever get with enough supplements to allow us deeper insight and understand of why it;s important.

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