Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde in Il portiere di notte (1974)

NIGHT PORTER, THE (Portiere di Notte, Il)

(director/writer: Liliana Cavani; screenwriters: Italo Moscati/based on the story by Barbara Alberti & Amedeo Pagani; cinematographer: Alfio Contini; editor: Franco Arcalli; music: Daniele Paris; cast: Dirk Bogarde (Max), Charlotte Rampling (Lucia Atherton), Philippe Leroy (Klaus), Gabriele Ferzetti (Hans), Marino Masé (Atherton), Giuseppe Addobbati (Stumm), Isa Miranda (Countess Stein), Piero Vida (Day Porter), Nora Ricci (The Neighbor), Amedeo Amodio (Bert), Ugo Cardea (Mario); Runtime: 115; United Artists/Avco Embassy Pictures; 1974-USA/Italy)
“This undignified film couldn’t quite get past all the sleaze it dredged up.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This review covers the English speaking version of “The Night Porter,” which I understand is not as good as the subtitled version. The Night Porter’s sadomasochistic tale was about as enjoyable as walking over broken glass. It’s a daring and controversial film covering an abusive relationship that few other films care to touch upon — for obvious reasons. But despite its promise of saying something important it turns out to be mainly a sexploitation film with little if any redeeming value except unearthing huge amounts of sleaze without any gold nuggets. It has been directed and written primarily for its shock effects by Italy’s most noted female director at the time, Liliana Cavani. What inspired the director, was her interview with a real concentration camp survivor who was forced into a sadistic relationship with one of her captors.

This study of sexual perversions is set in a luxurious Vienna hotel in 1957, thirteen years after WW11. Max (Dirk Bogarde) is a former SS officer who was stationed in a concentration camp and now wants to be left alone, to be as quiet as a church mouse and blend into the shadows. To hide his shame from the past he works obsessively as a hotel night porter where his aim is to please his guests, especially the Countess (Miranda) — a confidante who requires his services as a pimp to get her young men as sexual partners. Many of the other guests are war criminals who hold secret meetings in the hotel to uncover any evidence connecting them with their war crimes. Max prepares with these former Nazis a strategy for his upcoming War Trial at the hands of the Allies, as they conduct mock trials to learn about records in the archives they should destroy and witnesses to be tampered with or eliminated. Into this hotel scene, which reeks of nostalgia for the Führer, comes the only live witness who can testify against Max — the young Viennese camp inmate who is now married to an American opera conductor. She is someone he sexually abused in the camp, Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling), and he can’t stop being in love with her. Lucia is staying in Vienna with her husband in Max’s hotel, while her husband’s orchestra embarks from here on its European tour.

Upon recognizing each other from a brief glimpse in the hotel lobby, they remain mute and retreat to their memories of their freaky sex days in the camp. They are drawn uncontrollably to each other despite the sick thought of them getting together again and the apparent danger from Max’s unchanged fanatical and bloodthirsty friends, Klaus (Philippe Leroy) and Hans (Gabriele Ferzetti). They simply must get together again to pick up their painful sadistic relationship where it left off.

Lucia cancels plans to meet her husband in Frankfurt, as the police search Vienna for her after he notifies them that she’s missing. While Max quits his job because he knows how his friends operate when confronted by a witness and wants to be with her for protection. They hole up in his apartment, refusing to call the police for help and unable to go out for food because they are being watched by the former SS officers who plan to eliminate them.

The film’s most bizarre dialogue occurs between Max and the Countess. Max says “I love my little girl.” The Countess replies “What a romantic story!” Max counters, “the relationship between him and Lucia is a biblical one — it’s the story of Salome.”

The film failed in its efforts to smoothly pull off its blatant political and sexual metaphor of the post-war years as seen through the couple’s pained and degrading love. Its dramatic story and the serious issues it raises of guilt and continued suffering for the victims and of denial and repression by the still brazen Nazi war criminals unfortunately got lost in all its self-conscious perversions. This undignified film couldn’t quite get past all the sleaze it dredged up.