Monday, April 22, 2013

"N" is for The Night Porter

 I feel that you can hardly blame the Cap'n for taking his sweet time to watch The Night Porter. If you're one of the lucky everybody that hasn't seen Liliana Cavani's (Ripley's Game*) ode to self loathing and doomed relationships - for a very good reason - then I will give you just a taste of what you aren't missing. Criterion fans will no doubt want to put this back on the shelf with Salo and the other "Spine Numbers I'll Buy but Don't Actually Want to Watch."

 Speaking of which, I watched the Criterion disc - which shockingly has no extras - but didn't have access to the essay about why The Night Porter is worth watching, so I'm going to wing it. Instead of my normal "relatively well researched" review, I'm just going to reach blindly into the abyss that is The Night Porter's soul and reach several baseless conclusions. Why? Because even after I watched it, I still had to talk myself into not stopping The ABCs of Movie Masochism dead in its tracks. But seeing as the Cap'n does have such a thing as a "So You Won't Have To" category, it's high time I trotted it out again...

 The titular character is Max (Dirk Bogarde), who works in a Vienna hotel circa 1957. He prefers to live his life like a "church mouse," only exerting authority over subordinates at the hotel while fawning over regular guests. But that's because Max is harboring a secret - he's a Nazi, one who escaped at the end of the war and part of a small group dedicated to keeping their existence a secret. In order to do this, they meet in secret and work to have all traces of their deeds erased, ultimately purging their "sins" in a mock trial. Max's own "trial" is coming soon, but one chance encounter in the lobby throws his life into turmoil.

 Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) is visiting Vienna while her conductor husband (Marino Masé) is performing The Magic Flute at a nearby opera hall. When she and Max meet, they immediately recognize one another - she the daughter of a Socialist subjected to degradation and abuse at the hand of he, the "doctor" who used his position to film nude prisoners and sexually abuse them before execution. Lucia was the only one of Max's "patients" who survived. Max is fascinated, Lucia repelled, but their paths are destined to cross once more, despite the misgivings of his associates. She is, after all, the only link that exists between the life he had and the life in hiding he so desires.

 Let it be noted that my own distaste for The Night Porter is not universal - there are many who consider it to be a deep and thoughtful meditation on war crimes and guilt and nostalgia, and there's a section of the film that can only be called "Literal Biblical Allegory" involving Salome, John the Baptist, and Max's idea of a "gift" to Lucia. Plenty of the film is spent juxtaposing classical music, opera, and ballet with psychological and physical abuse on the part of the Nazis currently hiding in Vienna.

 I can only assume that nothing about The Night Porter is meant to be titillating, despite Rampling's state of semi-constant nudity in the mid-section of the film. Every scene between Rampling and Bogarde that hints at sexuality or eroticism is coupled with a corresponding flashback of Max sexual degradation of Lucia in the "medical facility" he operates.SPOILER ALERT) If it was meant to be shocking that she is ultimately as aroused by their shared history then the poster does a great disservice to that revelation. Advertising Lucia's fetishization as an SS sex-object might be effective to bring in crowds, but I strongly suspect that early in the film we're meant to identify her reaction to Max as traumatic and slowly build to the point where the flashbacks coincide with the present.

As it is,we come into the film knowing that Lucia returns to Max and that they resume their dance of sado-masochism (including broken glass, chains, and a sort of animalistic role playing). All of the flashbacks were merely a prelude, a history of Lucia's sexual awakening at the hands of the man who calls her his "Little Girl." It is also precisely at this point that The Night Porter runs out of steam.

 I suppose that I am missing some great metaphor at the heart of The Night Porter's second half, which involves Max and Lucia locked up in his apartment without food or contact to the outside world, for fear that his associates will kill her (and, undoubtedly, him). Their life in hiding is some bizarro world version of living in terror of the threat of Nazis during World War II, and I suppose on some level it makes sense, but it's predicated on a moment in the film that the audience desperately needs for the second half to have any impact.

 Remember that Max thought Lucia was dead, or at the very least that he'd never see her again. It's unclear the chronology of the flashbacks, but I'm going to venture a guess that the scene where's she's prancing around the SS nightclub singing (in German) while wearing an officer's hat, pants, suspenders, and nothing else, is at the apex of her assimilation into Max's fantasy world - the point that The Night Porter hints at and that Tinto Brass' Salon Kitty makes explicit - the decadence of the so-called "pure"Aryan army.

 What we never see, however, is the point at which the two are separated, and the circumstances that divide their twisted union (some might argue her brainwashing and sexual manipulation - she was supposed to be very young according to conversations between the Nazis in hiding), so reuniting as adults and making the determination to stay together (particularly on her part) loses any potency. If you want to argue that Lucia is exercising any sense of "agency" in the second half of the film - particularly as it lurches toward its inevitable conclusion - it might help to understand how she reacted to the end of the war, to liberation.

 It's clear that the Nazis aren't above killing anybody who could tie them to their war crimes, and Max kills the only man who could identify Lucia to his compatriots. The problem is that once the film shifts from twisted erotica to a game of "cat and mouse," Cavani injects no suspense into the proceedings. Instead we endure their slow starvation as we await the inevitable, which comes in a wholly expected way with little to no dramatic heft. If anything, we are relieved that The Night Porter is finally over, that the evil men who don't want to answer for their crimes kill off two people who found love - albeit a warped sense of "love" or co-dependency - in order to remain in the shadows.

 After nearly two hours of self loathing, degradation, abuse, sexual torture, and casual murder, all set to operatic tones and classical music, it's a relief to see them gunned down together. Now if only I cared that being reunited was significant to them. Oh well, I said I wanted to watch something I hadn't reviewed, and now I remember why I never wrote about it in the first place. Sometimes even the Cap'n doesn't have anything interesting to add to the discussion...

 I'll be back much sooner than it took between "M" and "N" with a look at a children's movie from the director of some of the most violent horror films you're likely to see. If you've paid attention to the clues in earlier reviews, I suspect you'll guess what it is.

 * No shit - she made Ripley's Game twenty eight years after The Night Porter, which is going to sound awfully coincidental when we get to "P"...

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