On the whole I avoid movies or books dealing with World War II or the Holocaust. There’s very little left to say on these subjects but that doesn’t stop people saying the same old things over and over again. There’s also a worryingly pornographic aspect that tends to creep in – a bit too much wallowing in violence and cruelty. It also depresses me too much; it illustrates all too clearly the human race’s total inability to learn from past mistakes. Supposedly civilised nations have continued to carry out the same kinds of atrocities, and for the same reasons – enemies are dehumanised, so it’s OK to treat them as less than human.
So what makes Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, a story of a sadomasochistic relationship between an SS officer and a concentration camp inmate that is reignited when they meet again years later, different? For one thing, the acting. Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling remorselessly expose the darkest corners of their character’s psyches. Their performances go far beyond categories like victim or monster. Max, the former Nazi officer now working as a night porter in a Vienna hotel, has certainly done monstrous things but he remains frighteningly human. He’s not one of them – a mere comic-book monster. He’s one of us. He’s a human being, and he has human emotions. The motivations and emotions of Rampling’s Lucia are complex. Is she a collaborator? A victim? Or both? Or neither? There’s no doubt that she chooses to become involved with Max once again. Whatever the situation in the past, she is now free to choose.
Her willingness to rekindle his relationship is one of the many things that upset people about this film when it was released in 1974. The film provoked hysterical reactions at the time. This was not the approved way of dealing with this kind of subject matter. The movie’s refusal to deal in clear-cut categories of hero, villain or victim enraged many viewers. The fact that the movie was directed by a woman provoked even more outrage. The most disturbing thing about The Night Porter though is the fact that it’s a love story. It’s an unhealthy love, it’s a love founded on abuse, but it is still a love story. It’s a movie that tells us things about love that we don’t really want to hear. It’s a movie that tells us all kinds of things about the human condition that we don’t really want to hear. It also raises wider questions about guilt and complicity in regard to events such as the Holocaust. The guilt and complicity of all of us, and of nations as well as individuals. Perhaps we are all like Max and Lucia. We might like to think that in extreme situations we would be heroes but possibly we’re far more likely to behave like Max and Lucia.
It’s not easy viewing but The Night Porter is an important, complex and thought-provoking movie, a movie that is as disturbing to the heart as it is to the mind. I highly recommend it.