We Suffer for Love, Love Is Suffering: ‘The Night Porter’

Liliana Cavani's jarring and morally gray exploration of fascist power dynamics reminds us that just as we go through hell to get to love, love can itself be hell.

Released to anticipated controversy in 1974, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter still continues to provoke and disturb. A salty and dark tale of madness and obsession, The Night Porter examines the lives of a former Nazi (Dirk Bogarde) and his former captive (Charlotte Rampling), focusing on their dangerously twisted love affair that was initiated during the Nazi regime. Years later, after the war, the two have a chance encounter at a hotel where Max, Bogarde’s character, works as a concierge. Locking eyes in a crowded lobby, Max and Rampling’s Lucia are immediately sucked back into a dark and deadly past of which neither has ever been able to escape.

As it turns out, Lucia is a bored housewife, married to an overworked businessman. Seeing Max after all these years calls to mind the memories of the heinous life lived in captivity in the concentration camps of the war. It also brings forth a flood of confused emotions, brought about by the strange sexual relations she explored with her captor as a young woman. Max, equally distraught, fears being found out. Did Lucia deliberately seek him out? Has she come to turn him in? It doesn’t help that Max continues to keep ties and friendships with his fellow Nazi comrades — have they something to do with this? Max decides to confront Lucia to find out. Pretty soon, the two resume their manic and doomed love affair, with conspirators slowly closing in on them.

Cavani’s film certainly pushes for the extreme in the emotional exploits of fascism; its uncomfortable balance of unthinkable sadism and loving tenderness pushes the narrative in areas with so many shades of grey, we are left wondering just how we should feel and react. The truth is, given the rather sordid premise and the incisively nuanced and textured performances, there isn’t any true way one could possibly react. This is both to the film’s benefit and detriment. Indeed, Cavani means for us to explore our ideas of love and suffering and our views on fascism. The ironic discovery of The Night Porter is that we suffer in order to obtain love, yet love is the source of suffering.

However, Cavani’s threads on these two disparate notions of human life never find a congruous space. Neither party is penitent of the actions taken or the loss of dignity; they each live for their lusts and suffer subjugations on all fronts. The problem lies largely in the development of each character’s motivation. Between the two, Max’s personal demons and desires seem far more articulated with a sense of depth that reaches beyond mere conjecture. His struggles are obvious; he’s torn between a collapsed social ideology (fascism) and the more primal instincts of human desire. In his liaison with Lucia, he seeks some kind of redemption that will allow him to reconcile his past with the present. Lucia, on the other hand, remains somewhat of an enigma. She does indeed traverse the boundaries of social and cultural proclivities, entering dangerous emotional territories – but it’s always at the risk of her mental health and not, by any means, a liberation. What Lucia procures from such a perilous relationship is the film’s most uncomfortable and unanswered question.

Certainly, the film is brave in its attempt at redefining the concepts of love in the midst of struggle. Nevertheless, it leaves the viewer flat when its depictions of redemption, sex and suffering are not able to coalesce. Had Rampling’s character been developed beyond simply a tool for Max’s own discovery of the self, there might have been a genuine comment made of the loss of dignity and salvation. As it stands, Cavani’s film is notable for the truly inspired casting of the leads and their respectively mesmerizing performances. The starkly beautiful and evocative cinematography by Alfio Contini is hampered only by the pacing of the film which drags somewhat, leaving the viewer’s attention to wander intermittently throughout.

This updated Criterion edition of The Night Porter gives the film a clean presentation, restoring the picture with the adjusted level of colour it was surely meant to be seen in. The picture does, for the most part, appear a little soft, and there are a few traces a flicker here and there and some print damage. But these instances are very minimal and do not distract from the overall viewing. The haunting wash of blues and greys at times can seem a little overwhelming, but this is no doubt intentional, as it is Cavani’s objective to envelope the viewer in the claustrophobic world of her characters. Her intentions are fully realized and captured in Contini’s incredible cinematography. Supplemental materials include a documentary and an interview with the director.

The Night Porter is most definitely a unique portrait of two desperate lives commiserating in the depths of their despair. The casting of Dirk Bogarde, who began his career as a matinée idol before transitioning into an art-house mainstay, was definitely an appropriate one. He gives a genuine display of empathetic yearning that transcends the atrocious nature of his character. Charlotte Rampling is excellent, as always. Normally, her characters are of the tough-as-nails variety, evincing a remarkable sense of self-determination in the most subtle of ways. Here, she affects a neediness and frailty almost animal, like that of a wounded bird.

Had Cavani’s film explored the dynamics between her two leads a little more perceptively and had developed Rampling’s character further, we might have had a deeply engaging storyline that managed to provoke and disturb as much as it held our sympathies. What we are left with are two exceptional performances circling a prominently grey area largely devoid of empathy or consequence.

RATING 6 / 10