At the time it was made, The Night Porter was seen as intensely controversial, and even now it remains an occasionally uncomfortable experience, largely as it refuses to give easy answers for what is going on. Dirk Bogarde plays Max, who works as a night porter at a Vienna hotel in 1957. However Max has a secret former life, as 13 years before he was an SS officer in the Nazi concentration camps.
Along with a network of fellow former Nazis, he’s managed to keep his former identity a secret, but there are always people looking for Nazis, especially those like Max and his friends who haven’t fully renounced their previous ideology. Then a woman called Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) arrives at the hotel, who is a former prisoner who Max had an intense relationship with in the camps. While you’d expect her to revile him, they fall back into the strange sado-masochistic relationship they had before.
The Night Porter is an intriguing and sometimes odd film, which is at times bizarre, deliberately unclear, troubling, dark and brave. Even now the idea of a former SS officer and a concentration camp victim restarting an affair after the war is a controversial one, made even more so in The Night Porter by the fact it never completely reveals exactly what each of them gets out of the relationship. Lucia seems to be a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, but there’s more to it than that, with the enjoyment of both power and submission playing into it, as well as of doing something not just frowned upon but which both partners know is actively perverse.
However, while director Liliana Cavani leaves certain motivations and desires deliberately fuzzy in order to provoke, question, unsettle and leave the audience thinking, it also has the effect of sometimes making The Night Porter seem on the edge of purely being exploitative and a bit nasty. Cavani seems to think the central relationship is a big enough statement on its own, and despite some last-minute moral reasoning, it unclear what that statement is. The reality is that despite the window dressing, the film could easily be said to be trying to titillate by exploiting something as terrible as the Holocaust. That said, it’s undoubtedly thought provoking and still manages to disturb 38 years after it was released.
This is the movie’s first trip to Blu-ray and on the clarity front it’s looking pretty good, with only a little grain and nice edges. There are problems with the colour though. As with many films from the 1970s, the colours have noticeably faded, giving everything a slightly sea-green tinge and a bit of a bleached feel. This is more to do with how the film stock has aged than a mistake on the Blu-ray maker’s part, but it is noticeable. An expensive restoration could have sorted this out, but considering this is never going to be more than a cult movie, this is about the best we could reasonably expect.
Overall Verdict: Although it difficult to escape the feeling this is sometimes nastily exploitative, The Night Porter is nevertheless an intriguing, often thought provoking and troubling watch.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac