Films steeped in controversy have a particular allure about them to any film fan, it feels as if watching them treads the lines of danger and creates an inexplicable feeling of watching something you shouldn’t be. That feeling is often warranted when watching particular cult classics – they were produced in a time when controversial topics were seen as thrilling rather than offensive, and therefore allowed to brave viewers’ screens. That is not to say that questionable movies aren’t still created in the modern industry, but there are certain themes that are best avoided if you would rather not upset anyone. One of those topics is the exploitation of the Nazi regime, especially when it comes to sexualising the atrocious crimes and portraying an erotic air to concentration camps and the Holocaust.
However, back in 1974 Italian filmmaker Liliana Cavani released a highly provocative film called The Night Porter, which has recently received a 4k restoration by CultFilms and is now available to shock the audience once again. The Night Porter depicts the story of Maximilian, played by Dirk Bogarde, as the night clerk for an exclusive hotel situated in Vienna where he spends his evenings doting on the inhabitants and tending to their needs. Max also happens to be a former World War II SS Officer, whom had a penchant for sadism particularly when it came to one very young girl during his time as an officer… Lucia, a former prisoner from a concentration camp, finds herself staying at the Vienna hotel with her new husband who is an American orchestra conductor. When Lucia and Max cross paths it becomes clear that their previous lives were sadistically entwined whilst at a concentration camp. They both have something of a disturbing erotic lust for one another, based on their previous contentious relationship, which has endured.
The Night Porter is the type of film that could easily be described as ‘problematic’ for numerous reasons, however the surface level reason being the exploitative nature of creating a film that combines sexual pleasure with concentration camps and torture. For this reason alone The Night Porter has gained notoriety and cult status, although compared to other films with similar themes or even more depraved notions, it is perhaps a far tamer depiction. Deciding to take such a delicate historical event such as World War II and the horrific crimes that were committed against innocent people in concentration camps is always going to cause an acceptable outrage within the audience, yet there is an argument that art is there to be exploited and used to portray even the most outrageous and abhorrent of scenarios, purely because the scenes shown are fictional.
This seems to be a two-sided argument as to whether a film like The Night Porter should exist, yet being a film fan that believes in the merit of highly controversial films that raise questions and push boundaries, this film serves a purpose to the right viewer and may even speak on a deeper level to certain individuals. Art should not need to tread the lines of caution so delicately, and fiction should express creative ideas, even if they push personal boundaries and make many a viewer uncomfortable with what is shown on screen.
Cavani’s vision focuses on the sadomasochistic relationship between Max and Lucia, one in which he was her tormentor and persecutor, whilst she was his prisoner and victim. Whilst this concept is hard to grasp for many, sadomasochism is a common sexual preference for many and those involved find feelings of extreme pleasure from inflicting pain on another or being the one to receive the suffering. Understandably this titillating concept feels highly immoral when placed in the setting of Lucia having been a prisoner in a concentration camp and Max having been an SS Officer that was essentially abusing her for his own sexual gratification, all whilst she was underage too. Nonetheless it is Lucia that has an overwhelming desire to reignite their troublesome passion when she stumbles upon Max in the hotel. At first she is conflicted with these lustful feelings, and even displays a sense of fear and fright towards him, but it becomes more evident that her emotions are conflicted and there is something of a draw to Max, albeit in a perturbing way.
The Night Porter provides an interesting commentary on how society views women’s sexuality and the potential that women can find pleasure in being the supposed ‘victim’ in a sexual relationship. Although Max was her captor and torturer, he was also her protector and does protect her throughout everything. Regardless of all the problems presented with their traumatic relationship, Cavani looks to explore how women can find carnal pleasure through forms of suffering, and although it might be difficult to understand for many, we should accept that masochistic tendencies can often be a source of sheer climatic gratification for any gender involved, even if to the outsider the subordinate in the relationship always looks to be a victim looking for an escape route. It seems that when watched through a more liberated sexual viewpoint, there may be more storytelling to this film than given credit for.
Ultimately The Night Porter suffers from poorly executing anything resembling exhilaration and titillation. Even though shocking in some ways, the film begins to drag and drone on, without providing any substance to the viewing. This could have been one of the most controversial and disturbing films brought to screen, but it holds back from fully letting go, therefore it just lands a little flat. There are certainly elements that will stay with the viewer long after watching, however The Night Porter isn’t quite as seductive or shocking as the exploitation film it wants to be.
CultFilms presents Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter 4K restoration on Blu-Ray and Digital from 30 November 2020
Girls on Film – Fetishes, Fascists and Voyeurs looks at how The Night Porter dove-tails with three 2020 releases.