Blu-ray Review: The Night Porter (1974)
Review by Nia Edwards-Behi
It was only relatively recently that I saw The Night Porter for the first time. It was a couple of years ago that I first watched Joseph Losey’s The Servant, and found myself being truly blown away by Dirk Bogarde’s performance. I knew of The Night Porter, but if Bogarde’s performance was one dot as good as in The Servant, I knew I had to finally see the film as soon as possible. A friend lent me the DVD, excitedly exclaiming how much he loved the film, and soon as I’d watched it, I was exclaiming the same.
The Night Porter is an uneasy sort of film. Synopsising it in any way inevitably undersells it. Essentially, though, the film is a love story. Max (Dirk Bogarde), a hotel night porter, reencounters a woman from his past, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), who is staying with her husband at the hotel. They rekindle the strange relationship they once had, a past that is shown to us via flashbacks. What marks The Night Porter out from other such films is the context of that past relationship: Max was the SS officer in charge of the concentration camp which held Lucia prisoner, and their relationship was far from normal. As the play of power, control and sado-masochism is rekindled between them, the past impacts the present in increasingly difficult ways.
The most famous scene in The Night Porter sees Lucia sing provocatively for the camp guards, dressed only in the trousers, braces, hat and gloves of an SS uniform. The scene itself is part-flashback, part-metaphor, part-story-within-a-story, as Max uses the anecdote to demonstrate that he and Lucia’s love is not romantic, but biblical. The scene retells the story of Salome, with Max rewarding Lucia’s dance with the severed head of a fellow prisoner who tormented her. It’s a magnificently crafted scene that serves to encapsulate much of the film’s appeal. The film, though, is so much more than one striking sequence, even if it is a sequence that seems to have provided the imagery for probably every poster and video or DVD cover to date.
Much of the film’s success lies with Bogarde and Rampling. Their performances here are subtle, intricate and most of all convincing. Max and Lucia’s love story is a difficult one to invest in, and in the wrong hands could certainly seem gratuitous, or meaningless, or downright wrong. Instead what could be one of the creepiest relationships in screen history is rendered genuine and somehow – bafflingly! – affectionate. While there’s no doubting that Max and Lucia’s love for each other comes from a dark, troubling, and ultimately reprehensible place, there’s also no doubting their genuine, twisted and unavoidable attraction to each other. Their reunion is not one that comes from nowhere, either. They see each other, and avoid each other, and yet, we see whenever Lucia hides or moves away from Max, she looks disappointed in herself, or in him. Rampling is truly remarkable in showing so much emotion in such a cold, calculated performance. When Max speaks of his past in such a controlled manner – see how he carefully wipes a café table in front of himself as he speaks – it’s only inevitable that his restraint will slip and his behaviour become erratic, verging on hysterical. The shifts in tone from Bogarde as Max are equally as controlled, as he goes from menacing to amused to panicked in seconds. The two powerhouse performances at the centre of the film are as impressive as they are expected.
You might wonder why this film’s being reviewed on a website such as Brutal as Hell. Well, I’ll give you one word: Salò. The two films are comparable for more reasons than simply their country of origin. Both explore World War Two in a particularly interesting way. These are war films, make no mistake, even if the war is well over. The poison of war, of regimes, lingers in the air and in these people we encounter. Some scenes in The Night Porter are incredibly reminiscent of Salò – the Salome scene included – as the decadence of fascism ruins people, kills people. The indulgences in The Night Porter are both self-preserving and self-destructive in the same vile bodies that hide their pasts while seeking to relive it. This dissonance, this pervasive sense of contradiction, is truly horrific. Regardless – if the last scene of The Night Porter doesn’t sum up ‘brutal’, I don’t know what does.
For some, perhaps The Night Porter is a dated film. The shocks just aren’t there any more, or the context might seem a little too unreal. For me, however, the film is surely as vital and as powerful as it ever was. The Blu-ray transfer of the film is glorious, to boot, though it’s a pity that the extras are only available on the DVD version. Nevertheless, give The Night Porter a chance, and it might just take your breath away.
The Night Porter is released to region 2 DVD and Blu-ray on 30th July, from Anchor Bay.