Highly stylized, depthless in its perversity, and shockingly pretentious, The Night Porter, like Onibaba and Last Year at Marienbad, will stick in my memory. I’m unsure what to make of it. Am I to be offended by the disturbing premise? Aroused by the overt sexuality? Left ambivalent by two characters who clearly deserve one another and little sympathy? I’m all of those things right now, and think a second viewing of the film is in order–after I’ve taken a shower, of course.
Briefly: A holocaust survivor crosses paths with a sadistic nazi guard from her past, and the two rekindle the bizarre sexual relationship that began in a concentration camp twelve years earlier. There’s a subplot involving a group of former camp guards who try to cleanse themselves of their transgressions, all the while seeking out and eliminating the survivors who might otherwise bear witness against them. This, of course, puts our two lovers in mortal danger.
This central premise is completely implausible, stretching credulity rubber-band thin. How could this woman, after years of torture, return to engage her captor in a battle of sexual will? Maybe she suffers from Stockholm Syndrome, where a hostage begins to identify with their captor. Maybe her experience has broken her down to the bare bones of insanity. Perhaps she’s inherently no less sadistic than a nazi. I don’t know, I’m not sure the filmmakers knew, either, and the movie never really makes anything clear.
The Night Porter is stunning to look at. I was left in awe of director Liliana Cavani’s natural gift for framing, Nedo Azzini and Jean Marie Simon’s intricate art design, and several fantasy set-pieces that push the film into the avante garde. It’s all very artsy, and obviously so, as scene after scene draws attention to itself. And yet, I was fascinated.
Like I said, a second look is in order to see if I can make sense of it all; that is, as soon as I recover from the first viewing.
1974; starring Charlotte Rampling, Dirk Bogarde; directed by Liliana Cavani; 118 min; R; English; available on Criterion.