Before I start this review I would like to begin with this quote about The Night Porter from Pulitzer prize winning Film Critic Roger Ebert: "as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering." Knowing this is a good enough reason alone to watch The Night Porter. It seems as if Roger Ebert was so disgusted with himself for liking the film and feeling it had artistic merit that he had to somehow redeem himself with an emotionally fueled review.
I will admit that I both enjoyed the film and felt it had much artistic merit. The film was directed by female Italian auteur Liliana Cavani, starring (the English stars) Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling. Not a bad line-up for a fan of European films of the 1970s. In 1962 both Bogarde and Rampling starred in another dark Third Reich tale, The Damned, directed by Luchino Visconti. Having seen The Damned gives an especially appropriate introduction to watching The Night Porter.
The Night Porter has a fairly straightforward and linear plot. What makes it different is its various flashbacks which seem more like decaying pastel dream sequences. These scenes have a power unmatched by any film trying to portray this time of history. These scenes range from an SS Man doing ballet for a large group of his comrades, to Max giving the head of an enemy prisoner in a box to his lover/prisoner. Never has the SS been so romantic.
Expect to also see a Joseph Goebbels (Nazi Minister of Propaganda) look alike performing ballet for a group of SS men. This scene is both eerie and chilling. It makes Nazism look like a fetishist’s art. This character later becomes an enemy of Max and still a driven Nazi. It is all so very strange in this world. The sex scenes are violent and animal like. Broken glass and blood make scenes of disturbing sex more real then what you might see in your latest slasher flick. This relationship truly has passion. Knowing that they could be killed at any second makes their relationship even more fun as they are finally living completely for each other. The effects of the war never truly go away.
The Night Porter’s score perfectly compliments the film. It is a melody that is as haunting as the protagonist’s past. Throughout the film, the melody constantly reminds you of the films tragic mood. I wouldn’t expect anything less from Italian production. Even Italian exploitation films have excellently composed music. The ending of The Night Porter is as romantic as a film can get (of the sadist sort). I don’t know whether or not Steven Spielberg would be happy with it, but don’t expect juvenile sentimentalism. The Night Porter isn’t out to make the viewer feel like everything is alright at the end. Postwar European film has a lot of darkness and nihilism involved.
The Night Porter is like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS meets European art film. I don’t think you can get much more different or offensive than that. Although flawed, The Night Porter has become one of my favorite films over the past couple of years.