Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (Il portiere di notte, 1974) is a provocative film that has elicited mostly criticism in its treatment of National Socialism and concentration camps. The criticism isn’t without merit. The story revolves around a former Nazi official, Max Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde) whose main obsession during the war was to make voyeuristic films of concentration camp prisoners. For Max, the Holocaust is a purely an aesthetic experience.
It’s 1957 but the wounds, memories, and hunts for the former SS members is an ongoing process. Max works as the night porter in a Viennese hotel. Like a vampire, he avoids doing anything during the day to hide himself from the authorities that may be after him for the crimes against humanity. Bogarde’s Max is self-composed, rigid, yet polite and deferential to hotel’s guests. Things begin to fall apart when he sees a woman from his past, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) who was a prisoner in a nameless concentration camp and at the time, a teenage girl. She’s not Jewish (Cavani insisted on this to avoid ethical issues and to show that there were other victims of the war, though criticism followed anyway) but a “daughter of a Socialist.”
Lucia is now a woman married to a famous American conductor. She too recognizes Max, and at that moment, our assumption may be that Max tortured her and that she’s trying to avoid her tormentor. That turns out to be true but their relationship was more complicated than that; they were involved in an erotic, sado-masochistic relationship. This alone calls into question Cavani’s choice, and creates a tension between ethics and aesthetics. How can we possibly equate a victim and a torturer in the context of the Holocaust? Without a doubt, millions of people who weren’t Jewish were also murdered but the systematic murdering campaign against Jews is what makes the Shoah a singular event of genocide. Before any evaluation of the film, this fact must be acknowledged.
The next question is, can Cavani’s film be aesthetically evaluated? My answer is yes. Unlike Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969), which aesthetically fetishizes Nazi ideology, Cavani takes us into the interior lives of very sick minds. Unlike Visconti’s characters, who are inhuman props, Cavani presents people as fully embodied in their evil. Her director’s lens passes judgment but not in a way that denies the aesthetic aspect of the film. Cavani is also well-versed in Greek tragedy and there are traces of it in the film.
Max and Lucia are at first reluctant to speak to one another. During the performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, they’re gazing at each other with curiosity and desire, and already in that moment, we see the power struggle. Max is seducing her back. Quickly, they resume their sado-masochistic relationship but in the midst of that, Max has to deal with his fellow SS members who want him to participate in some pseudo-psychoanalytic mock trial to get rid of any possibility of guilt over the crimes he has committed. They’re also eliminating any documented traces that might link Max to the events in the concentration camp, and Lucia is the witness, whom Max is desperately protecting. She is, as he says, his “little girl.” Is such a confession supposed to invoke disgust and arousal? It’s not Cavani who’s making that choice but the audience. Whatever one’s reaction may be, it reveals something about the viewer. Max confesses to another character, the Countess, who flat out tells him he is ill. Perhaps this is the final statement on Max’s condition.
Just like any sado-masochistic relationship, the question remains who has the actual power. Is Max really the torturer? It’s the element of perverted pleasure that complicates the relationship, therefore every insult, every slap, every demeaning act becomes a destructive loop of twisted eroticism. The obsession is re-awakened and to avoid the former SS members, Max and Lucia hide in his apartment. The food supply is cut off as well as the electricity. Max and Lucia descend into an animal-like state. Not only are they eating scraps of food, their sexual games increase but they’re both losing control. It’s the environment itself that’s dictating their erotic games, and neither Max nor Lucia have any power.
Unlike Visconti, Cavani doesn’t elevate these perversions. It’s true that she takes an expressionistic approach to cinematography but that’s inescapable since any well-made film must engage, even slightly, in the language of cinema. However, there’s another aesthetic level of the film (an aesthetic with an aesthetic), which takes place, namely of how the SS view reality. There are two scenes in particular that reveal this.
The first involves Bert, another SS member, who used to dance for the SS members during the war, and still practices for his upcoming performances. He likes to be watched by Max, while he’s practicing. There is a homoerotic element in this but Cavani is restrained in its depiction. Bert dances beautifully in front of the other SS members within the confines of a concentration camp rooms. In any other environment, we’d give him a standing ovation for such graceful and passionate movements. But we’re in a place of evil and darkness, dehumanization, genocide, watching monsters take pleasure in art. They’ve perverted the meaning of art by staining and assaulting it with evil. They’ve morphed the notion of Beauty into a twisted reality that involves not elevation of human life but destruction. They’ve appropriated something beautiful and turned art into an ideology of the aesthetic.
The second scene that reveals another level of aesthetic expression is when Lucia dances for the SS members in the camp. She’s barefoot, half-nude, dressed in men’s pants with suspenders, with an SS military hat, presumably belonging to an SS men. She sings Marlene Dietrich’s song, “Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte,” taking on the role of a cabaret performer. (Nazis attempted to claim Dietrich as one of their own but repeatedly failed). Here, once again, the aesthetic expression is not Cavani’s per se, but seen through the eyes of the SS men. She exposes the sick and evil minds that see no difference between good and evil. Here, however, the implication is that Lucia is of the sick mind also, but the difference is that she’s not enacting genocide.
Once again, Bogarde’s superb and his acting range is comparable to a coloratura soprano. He deftly navigates from being in control as the porter and a man lost in Lucia. Bogarde’s a master of subtle facial expressions, which convey many depths of the human soul. We see fear, pleasure, power, submission—all in a series of quick gazes.
The Night Porter eludes a simplistic analysis. We can’t choose only an aesthetic or ethical interpretation of it. We have to employ both. However, there’s one stipulation. Before we engage with the aesthetical aspect of this film, we must acknowledge the ethical issue that we face. What makes Cavani’s film acceptable is the fact that National Socialism isn’t aesthetically elevated but rather that she has exposed Nazis’ obsession with aesthetics. This is the tragedy of art—the fact that the Nazis appropriated Greek philosophy and drama, as well as the classical art in order to justify evil. German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously blamed Greek philosophy for his support of National Socialism. He never gave a sign of remorse, presumably because he was seduced by and agreed with the Nazi ideology. In the end, it was man’s evil actions that bear responsibility for the crimes against humanity.