The Night Porter Review
Some time after the war, Max, a former Nazi, is working as a Night Porter in a Viennese hotel. One day in the lobby he sees Lucia, his former lover from the concentration camp, and the two of them are shocked by the encounter. Max wants to be cleared of his war crimes at his coming tribunal and worries that Lucia has come to incriminate him, and Lucia wants to forget all that she did when she was Max's plaything in the camp. However their passion begins again and Max's Nazi friends become worried that Lucia could inform on him. Aware of their fears, Max faces a choice between giving up Lucia and the joy he feels by being with her. Deciding to live for Lucia, Max finds himself and his love besieged by his former comrades.
The Night Porter comes with a sense of the forbidden about it in a story about sexual obsession and Nazis. The film is not a sleazefest though and it does not follow a conventional cinematic path in its treatment of the Nazis. In the film there is no moral certainty that all the Germans are bad and that all their victims are angels. In fact the Nazis are evil, but their evil has touched and stained their victims and the survivors. The evil is not just what has been done to the dead but also what the living have had to do to survive. The relationship at the centre of the film is one that should not have happened. Max and Lucia blur the boundaries between perpetrator and victim as he is a loving criminal and she is his willing lover. They are eventually murdered because they enter into the world as they really are, and it remains unclear whether they are killed by the ex-Nazis or by the outside world, but they are killed because of guilt. The guilt is shared by the audience. When Rampling does her act for the Nazis in the camp she is disturbingly erotic. It is the performance of someone learning to love their degradation and it must be remembered that her audience includes both the Nazis and us. The point of this scene is to cause conflict in the viewer, a conflict which is present throughout the film with our revulsion regularly fighting our sympathy. For instance, we start to care about Max and Lucia's relationship, but we know that Max is a murderer and that Lucia was like some abused child when he met her. Lilana Caviani even extends the guilt to herself with her actions as a film maker being mirrored by Max's. In different scenes we see Max first filming with a camera and later arranging lighting for a performance much as Caviani has for the film we are watching. The message is made clear that the guilt of the camps touches everyone.
The film works brilliantly as a drama because of Rampling and Bogarde, they are both excellent. Rampling is at turns a child, a plaything, and an adventuress, and Bogarde makes you believe that this murdering Nazi can truly love. Once the film brings the two back together they can only be separated by death. This end they face dressed as they really are: the SS officer and the child. The Night Porter is bright and brave movie making.
Anchor Bay give the film an anamorphic transfer, but this seems to have been done by losing information from the right hand side of the screen. This is especially noticeable during the opening titles. The transfer has also boosted the contrast too far and you will notice excessive edge enhancement in the ballet sequences in the camp. The print also shows hairs, blemishes, and damage and the overall image is far too dark with flesh tones looking overheated. The sharpness of the image is good at the centre of the picture but it is less so in the periphery of the frame. In short, this is not a good print. The disc provides a choice of artificial sounding surround tracks, there is no original mono so the stereo track is by far the best option. The audio suffers from pops, hissing and some noise throughout. The voices are never distorted but soundtrack noise is managed poorly.
The extras provided are three interviews. Rampling is fascinating about why Bogarde made the film, and she explains how much of the finished piece was his vision rather than the director's. She describes Bogarde as a kindred spirit, and she seems genuinely lost now that he has died. Director Caviani says that listening to concentration camp survivors motivated the film, their tales of doing anything to survive prompted Caviani to show how Nazism uncovered parts of human beings that we hoped would remain hidden. The new interviews are essential viewing for fans of the film and completists will want the disc for these, but existing owners of the Criterion disc will not find a better picture than that release. Still, to have this controversial film available in the UK is a great thing.