This Just In: Evil is STILL Banal

| Veda Lawrence |

a woman wearing a black captain's hat with a domino mask over it stands in the lower right of the image; behind her are two individuals in black clothing.

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

For someone whose exposure to Holocaust literature has come mostly from the diary of Anne Frank, or the Boy in the Striped Pajamas, or even Life is Beautiful, a film like The Night Porter stands as a stark and offensive antithesis to the almost sanitized narratives that dominate the non-Jewish American perception of the Holocaust.

Perhaps it should. Many, even most critics have denigrated it as political pornography—indeed, Michel Foucault himself described it as an unconscionable sexualization of Nazism.1 When even Foucault thinks it’s gone too far… clearly, we should take note. But others have regarded the film as a “woman’s film,” as an expression of the female experience, as sensual instead of pornographic—in short, as a deeply misunderstood examination of women’s relationship to domination and fascism. While this dichotomy seems to absolve the film from being outright pornography, mere complexity doesn’t necessarily indicate that the film presents any sort of worthy perspective on the Holocaust. Indeed, it is questionable whether the Holocaust is even the central focus of the film, or merely a particularly inflammatory backdrop to a violent bastardization of a love story. 

Why is it that this film is so shocking to an audience raised on Anne Frank and Night? Is it because the film is a repugnant exploitation of genocide for the sake of sadomasochistic pleasure? Or is it because it presents a complicated, troubling, uncooperative depiction of the psychology of trauma? To answer this, we need to consider what effective Holocaust literature looks like and then examine The Night Porter within that context. 

As time draws us ever further from the Holocaust and we are forced to reckon with it from a position ever more detached both temporally and geographically, we must learn to describe it in ways that encompass a scope of suffering and evil that is almost beyond comprehension. Indeed, it may be an impossible task.

The trouble with Holocaust literature, Jerzy Kosinski points out, is that, “[w]hen you describe the atrocity of the camps you are immediately reminding the reader that this is not his reality.”2 In essence, to describe the experience is to alienate the reader, subverting the purpose of Holocaust literature which must be to cut against the Nazi rhetoric of othering the prisoners in the camps—to humanize them, yes, but also to show us that what happened is not so distant, not so impossible. For the Holocaust to become less visceral is to lull us into that same sense of complacency that fuels the crowds inoculated by the banality of evil. 

So perhaps the best way to explain the Holocaust is in art that disturbs, fails to explain, and finds no resolution.3 A few years ago, the MIA had an exhibition of “The Nazi Drawings,” by Mauricio Lasansky. My family and I wandered in, not knowing anything about what we were getting into, mostly askance at the title of the exhibit. The walls were covered in tall, high-set paintings, abstract images of Nazis and victims and the atrocities of the camps. My brother—bless his soul, has never been able to make it all the way through a Holocaust Museum—left the exhibit physically ill after only one room. These paintings were the closest thing I have ever encountered to art that truly made me feel that a corner of the curtain obscuring the genocide was slipping aside and I was able to feel a sliver of the aphonic nausea of the Holocaust.

The exhibit unsettles, and overwhelms, instilling a worldless sense of horror and dread in a way that I truly cannot describe. It actively eschews narrative structure or explanation, and in refusing to package these experiences into the expected paradigm, leaves the viewer disquieted and unsatisfied. This is precisely the experience we are looking for in Holocaust art. By immersing, disturbing, and confusing the viewer, this art envelops rather than ostracizes. There is no way to make genocide fit into a traditional narrative without cutting off edges and taming it into a sense of respectability. There is a real danger in attempting to make the Holocaust the spectacle of any narrative without imposing ourselves upon it as voyeurs, rather than witnesses.4

Certainly, The Night Porter disturbs. It leaves the viewer unsettled, uncomfortable, perhaps nauseated. Is it possible that this is what Cavani is doing? Does The Night Porter present a vision of the Holocaust that so severely unsettles the viewer that it removes the distance between viewer and signified, forcing us to confront the discomfort and horror that words fail to delineate? Provoking a strong revolting reaction cannot be the metric by which we determine if this art is successfully depicting the atrocities of the Holocaust. It would be intellectually lazy and morally nefarious to suggest that merely inciting disgust or horror means that one has captured the atrocity of the camps. At an extreme, this definition would include neo-Nazi art that glorifies genocide. At best it would allow us to take seriously works that simply use the Holocaust as an “edgy” backdrop to an unrelated narrative. 

The question then becomes whether The Night Porter’s primary object is to portray a nominally pornographic sadomasochistic “romance,” using the Holocaust as a backdrop to add an additional element of taboo, or whether it uses the erotic narrative as a way to provoke revulsion and in some way depict the emotional experience of the genocide. 

Charlotte Rampling as Lucia, a young woman with light skin and very short brown hair, is sitting on a white metal frame bed. Dirk Borgade, as Max, an older light-skinned man with dark, sleek hair, and a nazi uniform, is leaning into Lucia’s wounded arm, appearing to be on the brink of kissing it.

Turning to that romance, there is no stretch of the imagination by which Lucia and Max’s relationship can be read as properly sadomasochistic. Apologies to the Marquis de Sade apologists, but even the most permissive reading of their union cannot be read as entirely consensual—particularly in the beginning. The history of sexual violence in concentration camps is one which has not truly had a place in our collective narrative about the Holocaust. Indeed, the specific experience of women in the camps was often mediated through experiences of sexual violence, from rape to forced sterilization. We cannot forget that the “final solution” was the eradication of the Jews and Roma, and a genocide means destroying a people’s ability to reproduce. Women experience genocide through the lens of both personal extermination and reproductive horror. Sexual violence was thus not only a method of terror and control, but also a tool to carry out the Nazi genocide mission.5

It is impossible to view this relationship outside of this context. Perhaps Lucia’s sexual involvement with Max in the camps was voluntary, but it certainly was not consensual. Cavani’s depictions of Max assaulting Lucia in the camps, while certainly more sensual than pornographic, do not seem to address Lucia’s lack of consent, except perhaps in Rampling’s exceedingly flat performance. I actually find the sensual nature of these scenes troubling—indeed, the camera moves softly, highlighting moments that do speak to a feminine view of desire and sensuality, focusing on hands on thighs and the tension between the characters—all details that one would expect in a romance narrative. And this is more repugnant to me than outright pornography would be. To view their interactions in the camp through a lens of desire and sensuality completely erases the experience that the camera is showing us—that of a woman who has no choice but to submit to violence.

Rampling seems to remind us of this cinematographic dishonesty by playing Lucia as nearly hollow, submissive not out of a sense of trust or desire, but from a place of numb detachment. Does the juxtaposition between camera and actress, voyeur and object, satisfy the need for Holocaust art to disturb? Does it provide us with a nearly Humbertian look into the way that we ourselves often consume Holocaust media as outsiders, othering the victims and the experience through our own voyeurism? Or is this reading a desperate attempt to justify what is really just an insipid porno set in a concentration camp? 

And what of the relationship after Lucia has escaped the camp? Their tryst begins when Max literally confines her to a room and tackles her to the ground. Even the strictest sadomasochistic reading must balk at the outright violence with which Max initially traps Lucia. The relationship then becomes more complicated, Lucia seeming to consent to the frankly clumsy tryst with Max. Indeed, for a moment, the troubled viewer is afforded a moment of hope, when they realize that Max’s future could lay within Lucia’s control. For a moment, it seems like the power dynamic has flipped, that Lucia’s ability to serve as a witness against Max, to hold him accountable for the atrocities he committed as a Nazi soldier, in some way means that this is a story about a victim regaining power. But alas, even that gauche narrative falls apart, as we see that Lucia never held the power—the former S.S. members would never let her survive. She is once again held at the gunpoint of her Nazi oppressors, as trapped in the apartment as Max is. True, he too dies in the end, but it reads more as a Romeo and Juliet ending, rather than a victim killing her oppressor at the price of herself.

If not an inelegant narrative about the reversal of power, then can the film be understood, as many have argued, to be a trauma narrative? It is well-known that trauma impacts memory and survivors often reexperience trauma both psychologically and by replaying aspects of their trauma, whether to make sense of it, regain control, or simply because they are trapped in their experiences. Does The Night Porter provide us with a complicated depiction of the post-traumatic fall-out of re-experiencing? Is this what the critics who laud the film as an exploration of the feminine experience of submission and masochism hint at? Are the women who truly “adore a fascist” those who first have been abused by him? 

I am not convinced. In examining the film alongside other works that intermingle sex and genocide, I cannot help but turn to Sylvia Plath. To me, “adoring a fascist” to Cavani is as troubling as Sylvia Plath’s own “Daddy.” In this poem, Plath’s speaker seems to conflate her own ambiguous father/lover with the Nazis as a way to illustrate her discontent with the former. Despite my hatred for Ted Hughes (sticking one’s head in an oven seems like a reasonable response to being married to the man), there is no stretch of the imagination by which he can be properly compared to a fascist. The metaphor of Nazi violence falls resoundingly short in Plath’s poetry, because the Nazis are used as a vehicle for the ultimate tenor which is the narrator’s dissatisfaction with their own life. This is not to downplay the domestic atrocities which I am certain Plath experienced, but it is to point out that the Holocaust is not only metaphorical overkill, but also off-limits for this type of vehicle. To use the Holocaust as a vehicle to signify anything else, particularly the personal experience of a character untouched by the atrocity, is to cheapen the memory of something we already fail to memorialize.

It seems particularly cruel, also, to extort the uniquely female experience of the camps, to fill the silence of the female experience with projections of the non-partisan. Neither Cavani nor Plath bore any relation to the subjects of genocide. Indeed, they shared more with the oppressors. Identity should not preclude an artist from the narrative they wish to tell, yet what Cavani does is to place an arcane voice in the mouth of a woman whose experiences have been elided from the narrative. Is Lucia a Jew? Roma? A political prisoner? Or is she, like Plath’s subject, a near self-portrait of the author, mediating her life experiences through metaphors about the Holocaust, which has become a stand-in for a generic “absolute evil”? 

This is precisely the dilemma I find with The Night Porter. At no point am I convinced that this is a story about the Holocaust, but rather a story about a frankly unbelievable sadomasochistic union that happens to extort the Holocaust as a way to add a layer of erotic anathema. But to dismiss the film outright, without even pausing to consider why it is so repulsive, would be to fall under the very spell that allowed it to be created. The banality of evil asks us to neatly file the Holocaust away, to leave it unexamined and at the back of our minds. Failing to understand exactly why using the Holocaust as a vehicle for a metaphor is so dangerous or not pausing to consider how art can even capture a genocide, would be just as fraught as creating the metaphor in the first place. 


1  Foucault is a French philosopher who wrote A History of Sexuality. Notoriously kind of slutty. See Michel Foucault, “Anti-Rétro, entretiens avec P. Bonitzer et S. Toubiana,” Cahiers du Cinéma 251-252, (July-August 1974); reprinted in Dits et Écrits I 1954-1975, Paris, Gallimard, coll. «Quarto», 2001, 1520–1521.
2  Jerzy Kosinski quoted in Lawrence L. Langer, The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale UP, 1975), 1.
3  See Geuens, Jean-Pierre. “Pornography and the Holocaust: The Last Transgression.” Film Criticism, 20.1/2, 1995, 114–30.
4 See Victoria Aarons, “The Certainties of History and the Uncertainties of Representation in Post-Holocaust Writing,” Studies in American Jewish Literature 31. 2 (2012), 134–48.
5 See Young, James E., “Regarding the Pain of Women: Questions of Gender and the Arts of Holocaust Memory,” PMLA 124. 5 (2009), 1778–86.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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