Posted in: by Peter Hogue, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Night Porter (1)

[Originally published in Movietone News 38, January 1975]

The Night Porter is a strange, richly textured affair, and one sign of its dark brilliance is its success in holding some imposing limitations at bay. For one thing, its plot is highly contrived: an Austrian hotel night porter (Dirk Bogarde) is a Nazi war criminal; he is preparing for an annual meeting of old Nazis who have organized in order to continue escaping detection; but his standing with the group is put in jeopardy by the arrival at the hotel of a concentration camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) with whom he had had a sadomasochistic love affair. Matters are made even trickier by the somewhat devious contrast of the couple’s unconventional eroticism and the Nazi group’s hypocritical puritanism. But Liliana Cavani’s graceful and intelligent direction and the performances of Bogarde, Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti and Amedeo Amodio give the proceedings (script by Cavani and Italo Moscati) a depth that they might not have otherwise had.

Charlotte Rampling’s rather special presence (“depraved” according to P. Kael) is effective in a slow-burning, low-key way—though with little of the nouveau-Dietrich qualities that the film’s ads are at some pains to suggest. But Bogarde’s smooth, elegantly refined perversity is an absolutely essential ingredient in The Night Porter‘s startling appeal. He is working in familiar territory here, and yet some reviewers, weak of memory as always, have complained that Bogarde is burdened with material that is beneath him—but take away his contributions to baroque and/or “unusual” films like Victim, The Servant, King and Country, Accident, Modesty Blaise, Justine, The Damned and Death in Venice and how much “Dirk Bogarde” have you got left? Rampling’s bare-breasted song-and-dance routine—in trousers and Nazi cap—seems the film’s major selling point, but two Rampling-Bogarde love scenes involving long takes and the erotics of violence are perhaps the best sequences of the film.

The couple’s sadism seems to have struck a nerve with some reviewers, and their reactions have perhaps made The Night Porter the most outrageously vilified film since Performance. (Those who have called it a film for sick minds seem not to have noticed the connection between their own nasty-minded selfrighteousness and the pointedly vicious “normality” of the film’s Nazi cultists.) To ask us to side with two deliriously deviant lovers by setting them up against coldly efficient bigots may be stacking the deck, but Cavani veers away from the easy marks, giving us instead a brooding, sensuous study of the dark side of eroticism. Much of the film turns on the lovers’ sense of helplessness before the destructive power of the modern world and of their own psyches. Late in the film, a good deal is made of the fact that the chain Bogarde uses to keep Rampling in his room is of little practical value; the point is that the chain has symbolic value for the couple—both for its kinky erotic potential and for its private challenge to the public world of bondage. Cavani calls the film a love story, and she has a point; but the chilly absurdity that overtakes finally the couple, and the film, perhaps reflects her fear that all of that doesn’t matter much—inside the movie’s world or out of it.

Copyright © 1975 Peter Hogue

Direction: Liliana Cavani. Screenplay: Italo Moscati and Liliana Cavani, after a story by Cavani. Cinematography: Alfio Contini. Production: Robert Gordon Edwards.
The Players: Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti, Franco Arcadi.