Wednesday, 16 May 2012

29/04/2012: The Night Porter [1974]

This was the third Criterion Collection film I watched this week, and like many audience dividing films do, it comes from Italy. The Night Porter is the most famous work of Italian director Liliana Cavani, and is damned by some as a perverse exploitation of the Holocaust while others read the story as a dark psychological thriller of disturbed characters with a darker past.

The first I ever heard or in fact saw anything about The Night Porter, it was just a simple screenshot, and yet a very intriguing one. I've included it below, but it is also the basis for most of The Night Porter's marketing; the posters and DVD cases and such. I later continued to hear more about this movie in my circle of horror film buffs, although you can't I think ever describe the movie perfectly, it is something that you have to see. After hearing so much about it I picked it up, and then it became lost under the pile of other movies I wanted to watch until that night, when it came up again in conversation and I knew it was time to watch it. But can I translate my viewing experience into words is now the question.

First off, lets get down the basic plot that many find so controversial. Taking into account this movie was released in 1974, I think that The Night Porter is much more accepted now as the artistic film it is, although I'm sure many still claim it to be a perverse piece of work. To each his own. The Night Porter is set in Vienna some decent time after World-War II, where a Nazi scientist works as a porter in a hotel. He lives a low-key life, both to hide his past, and in guilt of his past, whilst still maintaining close connections with a circle of Nazi's as they hide evidence and witnesses in preparation for his coming trial. However, Max's world is shaken when a rich women checks into the hotel, a Holocaust survivor, for whom Max was both torturer and lover.

The thing that I think confused and disturbs most viewers is probably what happens next. When the two recognize each other at the hotel, it doesn't become some horrible game where Max hunts down the final witness of his past crimes. Instead, they do the opposite of what people would think is the normal reaction. Max and Lucia quickly fall back into their old sado-masochistic relationship. I think that this is where many people probably misinterpret the movie as some kind of raunchy and dirty exploitation movie (don't knock 'em) but in fact it doesn't come close. Instead we get a dark and murky tale of two damaged individuals and the psychological effects that have both pushed them apart and drawn them inexplicably together.

As strange and seemingly unrelateble  as these characters are, the casts performances are outstanding. There are subtleties that one wouldn't notice at first glance, and one may not even understand. However, if there is one thing The Night Porter wants you to do, it is try and understand. Dirk Bogarde does an amazing job playing Maximilian the Nazi, while Charlotte Rampling (Lucia) give a phenomenal performance in what is a complex role. She can appear to be portraying one emotion while subtly expressing another.

 The Night Porter is one of those movies that contains a number of scenes that you will be unlikely to forget. I think the finale scene is insanely powerful, and open to many an interpretation. Lucia's dance scene is also one that will haunt many, and if you know the significance of the present she receives, please enlighten me. One of the things that really makes these dark scenes stand out is the music that accompanies them. The Night Porter's difficult story is played out to classical and opera style music, the kind that is hauntingly beautiful in contrast to the darker imagery on screen.

 As important and masterful as this movie is I find it hard to find the words to properly capture it. It deals with an extremely dark and disturbing subject matter and story perfectly, but there are next to no actions or characters in the movie you could truly praise, though you can praise the cast for their excellent performances as such disturbed and strange characters. The Night Porter is a classic in the same terms as Gone With The Wind, and yet it is because it is so difficult and controversial that this movie will never truly gain anything beyond its cult position. It is great to see The Criterion Collection recognizing it for what it is. I would encourage anyone to try The Night Porter, it is not going to agree with everyone, but I still think it is something everyone should probably see. I think it is alike with Requiem For A Dream in the fact that, the movie is not pleasurable to watch, but when you finish it, you will have gained something important from watching it. What that is is up to you.

The Night Porter IMDb
The Night Porter: The Criterion Collection

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