I knew going in that The Night Porter was controversial. What I didn’t expect was for it to be so perplexing, confusing and illogical. It is certainly artistic, brave and creative filmmaking, but it is also needlessly provocative, tasteless, and in some ways insulting. I’m not referring to the nude or sexual scenes, most of which are tame given the Italian cinematic landscape of the time (see any early 1970s Pasolini film for an example). What is unsettling is the way two people deal with their tragic memories of captor and prisoner.
From a filmmaking perspective, Cavani is right there with her art house Italian peers from the era. The film looks tremendous, especially in this restored Blu-Ray version. She uses crooked angles for many of her shots, which adds to the disturbing nature of the narrative as it unfolds. She shoots in a darker hue, with lots of muted blues, greys and blacks, which looks great, yet is consistent with the mood of the primary characters.
Most of the early film consists of a back-and-forth between the war years and a Vienna hotel, where one of the Nazi camp leaders, Max, works as a night porter. He encounters one of his prisoners, Lucia, who recognizes him and that triggers some terrible memories.
The flashbacks are of the harsh realities of the war. There is one scene where Germans are taking shots at kids on a swing set, disturbing because it combines a playful, jovial activity with atrocity and murder. There is another scene where a large group of prisoners are stripped naked in a room and examined by the Nazis. This is not an erotic scene, but instead one of abject humiliation, not just of Lucia, but all of her imprisoned companions.
The best and most effective scene comes about a third into the film, and is a strong example of contrasting horror with beauty. Both Max and Lucia are attending a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. They see each other in the audience, and again the memories are triggered. The wonderful, uplifting music continues in the background as we see a woman’s dormitory, crowded with cots a few feet away from each other. Lucia is lying in one cot as a German soldier is raping another woman within earshot. There are other powerful flashbacks, such as an instance where her captor inserts two fingers into her mouth, simulating fellatio. She looks fearful and apprehensive as this happens, still with the joyful music playing in the background. When we see her in the audience of the performance, her face is solemn and she looks distracted. This is not a pleasant memory to re-live.
From there the plot takes a left turn into the perplexing territory that I noted above. There are a group of former Nazis that Max belongs to. Most of them are proud of their deeds, yet Max feels shame. They know of the “witness” to their crimes and agree that she needs to be eradicated. The audience would expect Max to act according to the orders of his peers, but he defies them. Soon enough we will discover why.
This is where I have problems with the film. Max and Lucia are in love. He calls her “my little girl,” confesses his love, and they rekindle their romantic and sexual relationship in the hotel. Lucia reciprocates the love, yet there are still grossly disturbing flashbacks, like her singing a song bare-breasted for the German soldiers, and receiving a severed human head as her reward. This is what is baffling. The Stockholm Syndrome is a real thing and may have happened to a certain extent during the war, but being a captor of the Nazis is not the same as Patty Hearst being captured by the SLA.
Together they rebel against the Nazi conspirators that want to silence Lucia. He wants to save her, while she does not want to expose him. They want to live together even if circumstances, society, and their wartime past makes that an impossibility. They become the prisoners, and the post-war society is their captors.
Even though this turn defies logic, I am willing to forgive it to a certain degree because Cavani is using the horrors of war and imprisonment to make an artistic point about post-war society. She goes out of her way to reveal Max’s shame for his actions, and how he is protecting his “little girl” as a sort of penance, while Lucia is masochistically re-living a version of the worst years of her life in order to support him. They suffer in the hotel room because of their isolation and inability to escape. They starve, just like the prisoners during the war were starved. This could be read as society being imprisoned in 1958 by not being able to come to terms with the terror, with some who participated in the torture quietly being prideful of their actions, and the sufferers still haunted and unable to deal with the transformed world.
In this last paragraph I am going to spoil the ending, so please stop reading here if you have not seen the film.
Lucia had no option to leave her captivity during the war. The Germans, including Max, would not allow it. In 1958, he even chains her to the room, which is unnecessary since she is committed to remaining with him. Together, they have limited options. If she goes to the authorities, Max will be discovered and punished. Max has no options that do not involve killing Lucia, since she is the witness. Their only avenue is to leave willingly, famished, with barely enough energy to move one leg in front of the other. Their ending is inevitable and tragic, as they are shot in cold blood as they try to cross the bridge. We can tell from their body language that they have accepted this ending as inevitable. In some respects, this is also Cavani attempting a form of closure. The captor and the prisoner are gone, however tragic, but life goes on. The world needs to accept what was terrible and move on.
Film Rating: 7/10
Introduction to Women of the Resistance – Cavani introduces the film and says that The Night Porter originated with this documentary project for TV. She had watched a lot of western footage between 1940-1945, but could not get any footage from the Eastern Block. She says it is the only resistance documentary that focuses on women.
Women of the Resistance, 1965
Much of the documentary consists of archival footage and interviews with women who were directly involved. The images are not sharp, but that probably has more to do with the TV format rather than any restoration issues.
As with anything about the war, this is difficult and not altogether pleasant to watch, but it is rewarding. There are difficult issues that the women discuss, and one simply refused to discuss her own situation because it was too difficult.
The film begins with letters that imprisoned women write to their family hours before they are to die. All of the letters are powerful. One example: “Don’t think of me as being any different from any soldier on the battlefield.”
The resistance began in France and united all against the anti-fascist parties. Many were killed in the resistance, men and women. The women that participated were sometimes in service roles, but they also served as effective partisan fighters. Just like with the men, they suffered harsh treatment and persecution if they did not go along with the fascist regimes. Of the female resisters, 623 were shot while 3,000 were deported to Germany. The captured women were beaten, had their hair pulled out, starved, and suffered countless other tortures. One lady tried to make earplugs out of her clothing in order to not hear the screaming. They did not work so she tried to kill herself.
There are many topics in the documentary that would form the narrative of The Night Porter. While many of the subjects did not describe the sexual torture on camera, Cavani likely heard many such stories and chose not to broadcast them. Starvation of course becomes a theme, as Lucia and Max are unable to obtain food, not even from their neighbors, yet they live in a free society and have money. In the documentary, the ladies talk about how they were starved and many would die from hunger. One way they were tortured was by being tantalized by delicious food that they would not be allowed to eat. This comes into play in The Night Porter with the jam that Lucia eats ravenously. She sees it on the counter and cannot contain herself. The only difference is that in this captivity, she is allowed to eat what is in the room, but nothing else.
Most of the stories are tragic and painful, but there is an undercurrent of gratitude towards women who served and satisfaction from the participants. After the war, these women are remembered for their service and bravery. One person states that the women were sometimes sent in with the front lines because they simply had more courage than the men. All women that survived are proud of their experience and their service, even if the memories are filled with sorrow. Most importantly there is still a sense of duty to be watchful and wary of the potential of fascism and racism to come back. We know from history that it does not happen again, at least not anywhere close to the extent that it happened in the war.
Film Rating: 7.5/10
Liliana Cavani 2014 interview – She knew right away that she wanted Rampling or Mia Farrow to star in the lead role. She made the right choice as Rampling was brilliant. She did not want the female character to be Jewish because she did not want it to be about race or the Holocaust. Instead, Lucia was the “daughter of a socialist.” She had to make the movie as a tragedy because of the era. It was not possible to make a happy film about this topic.
She speaks about the controversy surrounding the film. Catholics came out against the film, although they were not bothered by the torture or misogyny. They were simply against the sex.
Criterion Rating: 7.5/10