Monday, December 21, 2015

Reeling Backward: "The Night Porter" (1974)

"The Night Porter" was deliberately provocative, and the reaction it provoked ran the gamut.

It was banned outright in a few countries, celebrated in some high society circles, reviled in others. It got glowing reviews and seething ones. The  depiction of a sexual obsession between a Nazi concentration camp officer and one of his female prisoners, both during the war and 12 years after its end, was overtly erotic and deeply disquieting.

This was the cinematic equivalent of a punch in the face -- accompanied by a grope to the groin. Films may go for one or the other, but the combination is combustible.

Roger Ebert famously dubbed it "a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering." The many critics praising it, he wrote in his one-star review, had managed to "interpret trash as 'really' meaningful."

I'm somewhat inclined to agree, though we diverge on the value of trash. Pauline Kael made the distinction between trash and "glorious trash" -- gleefully enjoyable junk -- and I think "The Night Porter" falls into the latter category. (Though, for the record, Kael also despised the film.)

Its only offense is in trying to pretend to be more than it is: a garish portrait of the uncomfortable convergence of love, hate and sex.

People who complained that it trivializes tragedy, as well as those who claimed it spotlights the perpetuation of the Nazi mindset, both seemed to get their glands swelled by the movie -- just not the ones intended.

Today, four decades on, "The Night Porter" is comfortably ensconced in respectability, adorned with scholarly articles and the de rigueur Criterion Collection video release.

The nudity, criticized as excessive in 1974, seems borderline tame. If you take out the musical sequence in which Charlotte Rampling performs a bawdy German tune topless while wearing a Nazi officer's hat and jodhpurs -- a scene now firmly iconic, in which the movie reaches its erotic apex -- her skin time in the film probably adds up to half a minute or less.

Of course, co-star Dirk Bogarde manages to engage in a handful of sex scenes without even so much as baring his midriff. Though the BDSM aspect of their relationship is pretty well-drawn. Writer/director Liliana Cavan, who co-wrote the screenplay with Italo Moscat, plus additional collaboration by Barbara Alberti and Amedeo Pagani, establishes in the grainy flashback sequences that he enjoyed lording his power over her, and she enjoyed being submissive.

The modern sequence takes place in Zurich in 1957 at the Hotel Zur Oper. Max (Bogarde) is the aforementioned front desk man for the night shift. He's sleek, courteous, obsequious in an imperious way. He meets all the demands of the clientele, including supplying some of the older, lonelier women with services of a personal nature. He declines invitations to do so himself, using the bellboy as a sex lackey.

Max has friends, German cinematic archetypes -- right down to the huffing b├╝rgermeister and the stern, monocled authority figure -- who show up from time to time for clandestine meetings. They are former mid-level Nazi officers who hold their own internal "trials" to determine their individual exposure to war crime charges. This mostly involves tracking down incriminating documents or witnesses and getting rid of them.

It is implied, though not directly stated, that Max was actually the highest-ranking officer among them, but now is their socioeconomic peasant, preferring to live as a "quiet church mouse" in a nondescript job of servitude rather than becoming bourgeois elite like themselves.

They speak of their trials in the Age of Aquarius language of the 1970s rather than the '50s, of being cleansed of their transgressions so they can live in peace and harmony. Perhaps, Max suggests, he's chosen the life he has because he alone has a remaining sliver of shame that is only expressed in the light.

Then one day into the hotel walks Lucia (Rampling). They lock eyes, porter and patron, recognize each other instantly and know fear. Through the flashback scenes we establish that Max liked to shoot films of his prisoners, especially while tormenting young and pretty girls, and she was his chief victim. Later, though, we learn that she eventually came to appreciate the attention. He called her simply "my little girl," and theirs was a twisted romance for the ages.

Lucia's personage is nettlingly dubious. It's stated that she is an American, the daughter of a socialist, rather than a Jewess. But the wartime scenes show her mingled with the victims of genocide, right down to the familiar striped pajamas and sheared heads. Rampling's famous cascading mane is hidden, unconvincingly, under a poofy and obvious hairpiece.

Her preternatural lithe body, bordering on scrawniness, is used to obvious effect, along with very theatrical makeup to make her so pale as to be ghost-like. Indeed, many of the Germans favor the same makeup or even wear masks during the flashbacks, and these scenes take on a Fellini-like daze of heightened reality.

These are memories, not history, and are therefore colored by the characters' evolving emotional relationship to these experiences.

The film's somewhat kooky tone grows kookier in the second half. Max's pals become worried about the presence of the woman, believing she'll turn him in and therefore endanger themselves. In actuality, the two resume their fractured romance. He embraces her and hits her, she enjoys it and hits him back, he chains her up for awhile, she resents it, and not. A little blood is drawn, so frequently we suspect it acts as a lubricant to entice the emission of other essential fluids.

Lucia runs away from her famous symphony conductor husband, the police come asking questions, the Germans grow more anxious, and the lovers ensconce themselves in Max's apartment, slowly starving as their supply of delivered groceries is turned away by the schemers.

Their lack of initiative is dazzling, even for a bit of fantasia. The Germans' arrayed forces amount to three or four middle-aged men, a wasting wreck of a friendly dowager (Isa Miranda) and one inept henchman youth. Yet Max cannot procure food from any source or find a back entrance to sneak out of.

Perhaps he's not really trying to escape his fate, but simply wants one more taste of passion before the light dims. It's hard to say; Bogarde was a master of thespian mannerisms, but could not project internal anguish the way later generations of actors did. Lucia's internal mechanisms are even more masked. She exists as a conduit for erotic energy, and little more.

It seems no matter what reaction people had to "The Night Porter," it was a tizzy. It is one of the most reviled and celebrated art films of the last half-century. Personally, I don't see the two reactions as mutually exclusive.

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