Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film ‘The Night Porter’ is strangely obsessed with the past

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Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film ‘The Night Porter’ is set in Vienna in 1957, twelve years after World War II. Set in Hotel Zur Oper, it is busy and bustling with guests, some of whom hold dark secrets. (SYJ: 4.5/5)

Review written by FF2 Media Intern Sophia Y Jin

The film opens with the night porter “Max” (Dirk Bogarde) of the hotel starting his shift. We are introduced to the “Countess Stein” (Isa Miranda) and also to the sexual element of the film when she asks for her ‘usual assistance.’ As the evening progresses, more guests check into the hotel. One of these guests is “Lucia” (Charlotte Rampling), who is married to the American orchestra conductor, “Maestro Atherton” (Marino Mase). Max checks the couple in to the hotel, which sets off  Lucia’s flashbacks of the Holocaust. It is apparent that Max was an SS officer, and Lucia was a victim of the Holocaust. Although now Max is a night porter of a hotel in Vienna, he wants to remain hidden from his past and seeing that Lucia is a survivor of the Holocaust means she is a threat to Max’s secret past.

There is a group of SS comrades who meet up in the hotel formed of gentlemen such as “Klaus” (Philippe Leroy),  “Hans” (Gabriele Ferzetti), and reluctantly Max. They have all been successful in covering up their past by destroying documents that might connect them to the Nazis and by eliminating witnesses. They talk about “Mario” (Ugo Cardea), who is also a member, who may know of a witness who survived, referring to Lucia. However, Mario tells Max that he let the other two members think Mario didn’t recognize the girl.

We are then introduced to “Bert” (Amedeo Amodio), a dancer currently residing in the hotel. During the night, Max has to come up to his room and “work the lights” as Bert dances. There is a flashback to when Bert danced in front of all the SS officers, almost entirely naked. After Bert finishes dancing and is getting ready to sleep, Max prepares some injection to help Bert sleep. The entire scene of Max injecting Bert is full of sexual connotations––the actual act of injecting a needle into Bert’s bottom, and also when Bert says, “…you never hurt” in a suggestive tone.

Director Liliana Cavani’s film The Night Porter is full of sexual tension and sadomasochistic obsessions. The movie is an Italian erotic psychological drama that has been controversial since its release in 1974. It has been considered a cult classic and a nazi exploitation film. Cavani was praised for her courage in dealing with sexual transgression within the context of the Holocaust. Despite this praise, she was also criticized for “exploiting the memories of persecution and suffering,” and the film was called “despicable” by critic Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. The movie was also dismissed as “junk” by two prominent New York critics, Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby. Europe, however, felt differently and hailed Cavani and her work for probing the unsettling sexual and the psychological obscurities that were left by the war. I felt the actors performed well and were compelling, and the story is dark and twisted, making it fascinating to watch. 

Liliana Cavani is an Italian film director and screenwriter and, interestingly, also directed opera aside from film. She hails from Emilia-Romagna, which is a place where a generation of Italian filmmakers lived. These include Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Marco Bellocchio, who all came into prominence in the 1970s. The Night Porter gained Cavani international recognition. Her films generally have historical concerns, whether they are documentaries or features. The Night Porter was released almost thirty years after the end of the Second World War, meaning that many people watching this film would have still remembered the war and all the horrors that accompany it. 

© Sophia Jin (10/30/2020) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter

Middle Photo: Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde

Bottom Photo: Charlotte Rampling

Photo Credits: The Criterion Collection (2014) (USA)

Does The Night Porter pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

No.

Tags: FF2 Media, Liliana Cavani, sophia jin, TCM, The Night Porter, Turner Classic Movies, Women Make Films, WomenMakeFilm

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Sophia is currently a student of classical music. She joined FF2 Media in 2018, and loves working with everyone on the team because not only does it promote women's roles in films, it also opens her up to more works done by women. Sophia is so glad that there is a space that is full of women alike in their passion to bring more attention to females who are just as capable or even more capable than men in the industry.
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