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THE NIGHT PORTER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling
Director:  Liliana Cavani
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  None
Length:  118 Minutes
Release Date:  January 11, 2000

Film **1/2

The Night Porter impels and repels in equal measures, like a magnet that can’t decide it’s own polarity.  It’s unapologetic in the way it revels in lurid, tasteless subject matter, but unlike a film like Salo, for example, at least here, we’re watching two adults who are where they are because they choose to be.  That makes it a little more palatable…doesn’t it?

Some have called The Night Porter the first of a series of European Nazi fetish pictures…movies that seem to find something characteristically attractive in the sheer brutality of that fascist regime.  That concept alone is enough to turn off the majority of the normal world population…in idea alone, I’m definitely one of them.

But there’s something so strange about the way the two central characters, who should by any account despise each other, manage to come together in kind of a helpless abandon and for all the wrong reasons, but reasons that are pure to them, if repulsive to us.

One of those characters is Max (Bogarde), a night porter in a respectable hotel in Vienna in the late 1950s.  He seems normal enough at first…even dismissable…until we begin to learn of his past.  The other major character, Lucia (Rampling), helps bring it back to him.  She is Jewish, and once a prisoner of a concentration camp Max lorded over with brutal efficiency.  We see flashbacks of how horrid and cruel he was to her, but that’s not the surprise that director Liliana Cavini had in store for us.  The surprise is that she was a willing participant in the degradation.

Now, reunited in Max’s hotel better than a decade later, both leading respectable existences, they have a chance to relive those moments again.  But their passion, for lack of a better word, is not without complications.

In one of the more bizarre story twists I’ve ever seen, we find that Max has kept in touch with some of his old Nazi buddies (or vice versa).  All have managed to escape war tribunal justice to that point, and all lead seemingly normal lives, but the group still convenes from time to time for an unwholesome ritual of catharsis.  They actually put one another on mock trials to help relieve them of the weight of their wartime deeds…and also to dig up any potential witnesses that might actually come to light in a real trial.  These witnesses are, of course, dealt with accordingly.

It is Max’s turn to stand trial, and the group won’t accept his refusal to participate, nor his protection of Lucia, the one woman who could seal his fate in reality and start their whole house of cards coming down.  This all cumulates in a lengthy, improbable but somewhat fascinating sequence where the Nazis surround the couple in Max’s flat to starve them out.

Violent sex, concentration camp torture, passion expressed through misery, Nazis who are still getting away with murder…I guess you could call it a picture that has something for just about everyone.  If you’re not repulsed by one aspect, you’re certain to find something else to your displeasure.

Yet The Night Porter won’t be so easily brushed aside.  Perhaps it’s the fact that it looks at the horrific through a translucent curtain of sadness.  While it’s easy to know what to think of the Nazis, it’s a little harder to judge Max and Lucia.  To say that they are both very, very sick people and close the book on them would be simple enough.  But to try and understand their mutual, destructive love is more of a challenge.  Maybe even impossible. 

Perhaps Cavini failed in achieving that understanding.  But she did make a film that’s hard to get out of your head once it’s gotten in.

Video ***

This is a mostly good effort from Criterion, particularly in the coloring, which is strong and vivid throughout.  The only real complaints are occasional print problems:  spots, nicks, scratches here and there.  Nothing too out of the ordinary for an older film, but noteworthy nonetheless.  Apart from that, images are sharp and clear all the way, with only minimal instances of grain noticeable in some darker settings.

Audio **

The mono soundtrack is adequate, even if the film’s post-dubbing of dialogue is a little obvious most of the way.  The spoken words are clear, and there’s very little noticeable noise or aging artifacts behind them.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

The Night Porter can’t be called a great film, but neither is the kind of picture that can be easily tossed aside into mediocrity.  The characters and the subject matter are interesting enough in a repulsive way, and the movie does offer some strange food for thought…just not the most nourishing or refreshing kind of food.