For costuming, script, soundtrack & acting, The Night Porter (1974) has everything just right. A highly perverse but scarcely unlikely tale, it can be off-putting for sheer daring, & has lost little of its unsettling character through the ensuing decades.
Lucia (Charlotte Rampling in her physical & acting prime) is a Jewish woman who returns to Vienna in 1957 & recognizes the hotel night porter as having been the Nazi S.S. officer & physician who both protected & tortured her during the war. He's a monster who tries to live a low key invisible life lest he end up on someone's list of war criminals. On the other hand, Lucia is alive because of his wartime interest in her.
The ex-nazi Max (Dirk Bogarde) has had a long-term relationship with another man, & they do odd role playing games that permit Max to dress up in his old uniform & his lover to bounce around the room as though he is still the sexy young thang who danced for perverted S.S. officers when he was younger. He begins to lose his hold on Max, however, almost as soon as he spots Lucia.
For her part, Lucia could easily reveal his identity & cause him considerable grief, but instead, they are soon picking up their sadomasochistic relationship where it left off at war's end. He more or less with her permission kidnaps her & chains her in his apartment, in order to protect her from some pro-nazi witness-hunters.
They have both recaptured in a rather artificial manner their own youth, a time when he was both protector & victimizer, & she was both victimized & grateful.
Anyone who has had any involvement with the s/m community knows well the role-playing nature of rape fantasy, & has met Jews who are looking for an Aryan playmate, African Americans who happily play roles with southern aristocrat white types, & all kinds of psychologically twisted scenarios. So this is not just a tasteless cinematic affectation but a fictionalized expression of a real phenomenon.
Whether it is viewed as merely nuts or a potentially healthy way of working through trauma (since fantasy role playing is not the same as the real thing), at the surface it merely is what it is, an aspect of human sexuality. There may well be some little element of this psychology, from slight to obsessive, in almost everyone. For Max & Lucia, it is obsessive.
Max quits his night porter job, & remains with Lucia constantly as they work out together their mutual desire & dread. When the group of ex-S.S. officers who hunt down witnesses find out Max is protecting one, they warn him they may have to take extreme steps.
They virtually hold the apartment siege so that communication with the outside world stops entirely. Barricaded Max & Lucia have to ration what food was already in the kitchen, they descend slowly into bickering & madness.
This is the material of a first-rate exploitation film but The Night Porter is, instead, an art film through & through. For many viewers it will be no less a decadent film of depravity, & I must admit to being very slow to warm to it, sticking to it partly because it's an established classic & because I've so greatly admired the two leads in so much else that they've done.
Yet by the time our pervy demented lovebirds are besieged by fascists, it gains an element of outcasts holding out against a world that refuses to understand or tolerate their existence. Before the drama's closing minutes, just about everyone will be just a little bit on the side of the degenerate.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl