REVIEW – The Night Porter (1974)
FilmJuice have my review of Liliana Cavani’s arthouse nazisploitation flick The Night Porter.
The Night Porter tells of a former Nazi who is attempting to evade prosecution and disappear into the shadows of post-War Europe. However, this flight into shadow is arrested when the Nazi encounters a young Jewish woman who survived the War by serving as his personal sex slave. Concerned that this young woman might turn him in to the authorities, the Nazi sets out to murder her but the second the pair are face to face they tumble back into the same sadomasochistic patterns that had seen them through the War. At the time of its release, the film’s suggestion that some Jewish people might have enjoyed or benefited from their time in a concentration camp was taken as an almost impossibly transgressive thing to say as Europe was in the process of turning Holocaust survivors into a class of living saints. However, as time has passed and the moral certitudes of the Second World War have begun to evaporate, the political elements of The Night Porter are not as shocking as they were meaning that all that remains is a film is which a topless Jewish girl sings for a bunch of Nazis. As I pointed out in the review, these scenes are astonishing:
If cinematic history has been kind to The Night Porter it is chiefly due to the series of dream-like vignettes that Cavani scatters across the face of the narrative. Almost entirely dialogue-free, these vignettes chart Rampling’s transformation from a terrified child to a sexually empowered woman who fearlessly performs a topless cabaret before a group of leering Nazis. Shot with a combination of elegant eroticism and low-key surrealism, these scenes are not just amazing to look at, they are also a highly evolved exercise in visual storytelling. Indeed, the more we learn about the behaviour of the ‘little girl’ in the camp, the more we realise that there was a good deal more to the sexual relationship than a desire to survive.
The problem is that, once you move beyond the beauty of those dream-like scenes, the film begins to fall apart.
While there is no denying either the beauty of the power of these transgressive dreamscapes, it is frustrating to note that while the storytelling inside the vignettes is arresting, Cavani fails to root them in either the wider narrative or basic principles of human psychology. As with Max’s feelings of guilt and his desire to withdraw from the world and live ‘like a church mouse’, the true desires and motivations of the ‘little girl’ are never explored and so Cavani never actually engages with any of the Big Ideas that litter the foreground of the film.
With nothing to say and nearly two hours in which to say it, The Night Porter shambles along with neither point nor purpose. Lacking proper characterisation, the film struggles to engage our sympathies meaning that the descent into thriller territory towards the end of the film feels forced, fraudulent and entirely unexciting.
Released on Blu-ray with neither bells or whistles, The Night Porter does contain a few legitimately wonderful cinematic moments but aside from dancing Nazis, there is little here to explain why it is that this film has endured while other works of artful Nazisploitation such as Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty have largely disappeared from view. Neither as transgressive as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or as politically engaged as Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and The Pity, Cavani’s Night Porter sheds little light on the human truths lost in the moral rubble of the Second World War.