Pain, Pleasure, and Depiction of Manipulation in The Night Porter

| Matt Lambert |

Lucia chains herself in Max's apartment to ensure his Nazi colleagues can't remove her.

The Night Porter plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, May 5, through Tuesday, May 7. Visit for tickets and more information.

Too often in criticism, there is a lens from the future looking back at the past in judgement. To be clear, I’m struggling with that urge in reviewing The Night Porter.

The 1974 film directed by Liliana Cavani examines the sadomasochistic relationship between Max (Dirk Bogarde), a former Nazi officer, and Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) one of his prisoners at the concentration camp. The Night Porter finds the two reunited after Lucia and her husband arrive at the hotel Max works at. After their eyes meet, they’re transported back to their first interaction in the camp, where Max poses as a doctor taking photographs of the inmates and becomes captivated by Lucia.

From there, after a brief discussion with her husband asking to leave the hotel, Lucia and Max rekindle their relationship, putting his upcoming war crimes trial at risk, as well as the rest of his Nazi officers that have all gotten off because of the lack of witnesses that could testify against them.

Lucia’s urgency to leave the hotel is the only time we verbally understand her psyche. In those early moments, she recalls the torment and suffering of the camps. The Night Porter never cares to give her another chance of expression other than throwing Lucia headfirst into her submissive role with the volatile Max. If you’re curious how Max feels about his “little girl,” or how his Nazi colleagues don’t believe they did anything wrong, you’re in luck.

Max examines Lucia's arm for injuries after a fellow concentration camp victim attacks her.

Again, this is hard to parse: a film released 50 years ago seems to be much more interested in the stance of the Nazis than the Holocaust victims they terrorized. The film didn’t escape the judgment of critics at the time though. Roger Ebert gave it one-star and called the performances by Bogarde and Rampling superb, but described it as a “shallow exploitation” of its concentration camp themes.

There have been a number of films examining the bondage, dominance, submission and sadomasochism (BDSM) community. The relationship between pain and pleasure didn’t originate in the mind of Cavani. The number of sexploitation films from the 60s and 70s could occupy your viewing pleasure for the better part of a year.

What separates The Night Porter from its contemporaries is the lack of judgement and comeuppance in its third act. I Spit on Your Grave (1978) has a revenge, horror element. The Devils (1971) tears down the institution of Christianity while examining 17th-century France. Even the Emanuelle series of films examine sexual identity and self-discovery.

It would appear Cavani is more interested in showing the visual death, torture, and manipulation of the Lucia character than having anything to say about the psyche and beliefs of the character herself. What I believe Cavani may lack in character development and story, she more than makes up for with her style. Her tight shots on every performer feels like you’re embedded in their pores mixed with the palate of dreary Germany is textured in a realism that many people must see to believe. Cavani is a master craftswoman, no doubt.

From the start, Max is only leading Lucia to her death. He says to one of the hotel guests that he’s been her “protector.” In his mind, she may not have survived the camp without him. But it was his people, his ideology, and leader that put her there in the first place. There’s a savior complex to Max. This complex is challenged by every person in Max’s life, except Lucia.

If the goal of The Night Porter was to be controversial and difficult to watch, it succeeds. To be clear, this film is not a pointless artistic exercise. There wasn’t a film released last year that challenged me as much as this one did. I wish I had seen it with a group of people to discuss it. It bears thought, contemplation and consideration.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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One Comment

  1. You’ve done a stellar job breaking this down.

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