“Like the implicit struggle between Salome and Herod, it becomes unclear as to who serves whom.”
The Night Porter is an explicit film full of implicators, implications and implicitness. Director Liliana Cavani insidiously links the two historical periods of 1940s Nazi Germany and Vienna in 1957 in what appears to be a conventional flashback framework. Yet the images are so compositionally and thematically ambiguous that what develops instead is a much more complex narrative of violent sexual unrest, both illicit and explicit. The film simultaneously reflects the shifty criminality of the Nazi conscience, the power dynamics inherent in a sadomasochistic sexuality, and how these combine to inform the dangerous interdependence of the two main characters.
Max (played by a rather pasty-looking Dirk Bogarde) is an ex-Nazi officer who, in 1957, works as a hotel porter. Lucia (the ever-emaciated Charlotte Rampling) is a former concentration camp inmate, whom Max had coerced into a volatile sexual partnership during the war. On tour in Vienna with her renowned conductor husband, Lucia arrives at the hotel, and before long, the highly ambiguous relationship of ex-officer and ex-prisoner is reignited.
The action occurs within a color scheme of washed-out blues, grays, mauves and lavenders, like pastels that have been rained on. Against these muted tones the sublimated motives and desires of the two characters break out into sudden storms of activity.
Memories of their wartime liaison are presented through very meticulously composed sequences, which are theatrical, almost dreamlike, in their stylization. In one shot, shriveled camp inmates are shown seemingly locked behind the bars of their bed-frames like ghosts stuck in limbo, forced to witness the sexual license of camp commanders. Another sequence involves a male dancer, stripped to his underwear, performing a ballet for a group of SS in full leather regalia in a barren warehouse of cold blues and grays. The Nazis sit frozen in mesmerized admiration for the beauty of the dance, or the dancer, so that the whole sequence seems seized in a giant, homoerotically-charged ice cube. In another flashback, naked prisoners cluster in bare hospital rooms, while SS Max weaves between them with a camera and a light. These shots are intercut, in direct implication of the spectator, with handheld shots displaying what Max is filming; seeing what Max sees, we rove with the bright hot light over the shivering, naked bodies in further violation, probing lasciviously, and, as will be seen, intuitively and fatally toward Lucia. Finally, in perhaps the film’s most dream-like flashback sequence, Lucia, half-naked in a combination of SS/S&M attire, performs a song in a Nazi cabaret, the camera slowly tracking her own slinking movements around masked figures in stylized poses. An aura of fatal eroticism culminates with Max presenting Lucia the “gift” of the decapitated head of a camp guard, named John, who had been harassing Lucia. The head metaphorically reverberates, but in the most perverse manner. The erotic dimensions of the Salome story are transposed into an explicit power-play between prisoner and officer, and, like the implicit struggle between Salome and Herod, it becomes unclear as to who serves whom.
Thus the action in this flashback world of Nazism transpires as a theatrical inversion. And while these ponderous episodes are meant to show the progression of the couple’s ambiguous involvement, they also comment on both the seductive and reductive psychosis of the Nazi mentality. By staging and eroticizing the behavior of Max and his fellow officers, Cavani reveals the men in the monsters, as well as the monsters in the men. She doesn’t justify or neutralize their behavior. Though unquestionably guilty of Nazi crimes in particular, their criminality is presented as inherent to their characters. That is, like the most treacherous Nazis, Max and his cohorts are, first and foremost, common criminals, “lucky” enough to have found their very criminality given official sanction and political refuge in Nazism. In the 1957 sequences, Cavani presents Max and his small group of remaining Nazis as a kind of low-criminal enclave or mob, with its own scaled-down hierarchy. There is a certain degree of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” in them. Driven into hiding since the post-war years, they carry on secret meetings behind closed doors or on rooftops, plotting in the most ineffectual, and indeed, slightly idiotic manner. At one rooftop meeting that is both humorous and dangerously telling, Max startles his cohorts with an unexpected, “Sieg Heil!” Instinctively, the men fling their arms up into salutes; yet, in a parody of Nazi order, they are standing in a loose circle and so their arms cross and fumble into each other like a tangled mass of cross-purposes. So even criminals are revealed as pathetically human, and, as humans, are therefore accountable for their crimes. However, as the film progresses, and Lucia’s own motives and desires are shown to be as questionable as those of Max himself, implications as to who or what is criminal or not are thus set in motion, and the audience is left with a confused sense of identification — or none at all.
The 1957 sequences, though just as carefully composed and performed as the war-time flashbacks, are less episodic and theatrical, quicker in pace or tempo, yet just as deliberate. An important locale for these sequences is the hotel in which Max works as night porter, a kind of multilevel sexual hive where various erotic encounters buzz behind the doors. In each of these rooms it is Max who provides the “service,” either directly or as facilitator, showing that even in the hotel there is a hierarchy to which he must answer. In one room an aged countess requests a visit from a resident “stud” from one of the lower floors; through a pointed visual connection, Max pulls up the hustler’s zipper as the elevator rises. In another room, the dancer from the warehouse in the earlier flashback scene proffers his ass to Max for an injection. As the drug hits and the dancer reaches down to stroke himself, the film cuts to Lucia’s nervous coffee spout spilling on a tablecloth.
This cut perfectly captures Lucia’s ambivalence regarding Max. The sudden shift from Max’s perversely mechanical dealings to the intimate close-up of the porcelain pot invests the latter with an erotic charge directly centered in Lucia’s hand, as if all the illicit energy of the hotel vibrates through her, forcing her to spill. Thus Lucia’s nervousness is both internal and external, traumatic memory colliding with erotic reality. Though she appears stunned by her first glimpse of Max when checking into the hotel, determined to avoid his gaze much as she did his camera in the camp hospital, eventually (inevitably?) her defenses appear to slip, and she must struggle to keep her eyes off him. These tensions are presented in one beautifully acted and executed sequence. At a symphony conducted by Lucia’s husband, both Lucia and Max sit in the audience, but several rows apart, and in such a way that Max is almost in her periphery. There is no dialogue, merely a series of controlled looks — from Lucia, that of panicky restraint as she struggles to keep herself from turning to face Max; and from Max, a look of smug confidence, aware of the fear he is causing Lucia, and almost drawing her out through an act of psychic intimidation. The power dynamics which play out more and more bodily [Guy: OK “bodily” or “boldly”?] throughout the film begin with this series of (un)exchanged looks, where the positioning of the actors and the cutting of the scene itself forbid an actual confrontation.
What does occur between the characters is a subtle transference of memory. As the soundtrack retains the music of the Vienna concert, the film cuts back to the war camps. While Lucia’s husband conducts the music, SS Max conducts Lucia in the performance of submissive sexual behavior, first fingering her mouth, and then guiding her down to her knees. The film crisscrosses past and present, underscoring Lucia’s later claim that Max is “more than the past.” The music of Lucia’s own husband becomes representative of Max’s violation of her, appearing even to recall it. Thus the film sits perilously and uneasily between two time periods connected only by a musical thread.
Such a device underscores the long-lasting reverberations of the camp experience in both the characters’ lives, but Lucia’s in particular. It is as if the mute fear she experienced in the camp, tamped down and repressed throughout the intervening years, has transformed into a kind of dangerous curiosity upon re-encountering Max. When her husband must leave for another city, persuading her fairly easily to stay behind and wait, Lucia stares after him with fear and resignation. But has she perhaps conspired with fate to get herself alone with Max? Either way, Max is suddenly there, locking them both in Lucia’s room, an action that will be more literally enacted by the film’s end.
Their first physical confrontation presents a further introduction to Lucia’s contradictory desires. At first she appears trapped, rushing to get at the door and out of Max’s grasp. Yet as the struggle continues, a strange smile appears on her face, almost like a different personality has entered her or come out from her, and the pleasure she feels for this “game” is suddenly made evident. It isn’t long before she’s twisted her way on top into a position of control. But just as quickly, Max slaps and curses her. By the confrontation’s end she’s curled up, in the foreground of the shot, in a bar of golden light from her now open door. We’re left with the sense of her being beaten down or broken into, drawn back into this fatal situation against her will or, at least, her better judgment. From this point on she keeps herself explicitly involved, eventually going to Max of her own accord and insinuating herself with a decisive viciousness.
So while ambiguous motivations are associated with both characters, they are especially prevalent in Lucia. Questions as to her true nature are continually raised but never explicitly answered. Is she a willing accomplice to Max, indulging awakened desires, or is her attraction to him a traumatized response to her camp experience? In the camp, it is fairly clear she’s an unwilling or, at least, unwitting victim. She is forced to silently “accept” Max, enduring his criminal ministrations in almost ritualized repose — as if the stiller she becomes, the less she will exist. As his fingers penetrate her mouth, she stares through him, doll-like, her gaze completely empty as if she has vacated her body. Only once does she fight back and one may see in this, perhaps, the seeds of resistance. Yet with her dance in the cabaret, it is obvious that, for whatever reasons, she has “surrendered” to Max, and is a more active participant in their relationship. She is fully in her body again — with a vengeance, one might say — gliding with an instinct that shows she has truly “come of age,” and knows just how to begin her own slow domination of Max. By the end of the film, this fatal trajectory will explode into desperate instigations by both characters.
So what is one to make of the post-war Lucia, her apparent willingness to re-engage with this dangerous criminal? Did she just miss her Max? When she says he is “more than the past,” does this mean he is everything and all times — past, future, and especially present? He almost seems an absence in her rather than a presence, like he’s inside her in the form (or formlessness) of a void that consumes her, which ultimately is her. Is the void one which can be filled or fulfilled only by Max, or is it rather a hollowness engendered by her refusal to face her own implications in this conflict — her avoidance of the void within herself? These questions of Lucia’s consent and denial linger unanswered by either the characters or the film itself.
Yet if Lucia’s motives remain slippery and unclear, Max’s become a model of clarity — to everyone but himself. While she gets fiercer, almost cat-like in her mental and physical movements, Max becomes — as, at one point, he says he prefers it — truly “mousy,” hiding away in a hole of his own making. Afraid to face his guilt in any way in regard to the whole Nazi enterprise, he is equally reluctant to openly declare the true reasons for his domination of and by Lucia. As the main source both of his shame and desire, and as the primary example of his abuse of power during the war, his attraction to and protection of her becomes like a sickness in him. His fellow Nazis hope to “cure” this sickness by pushing Max into murdering Lucia, and thus, any evidence of Max’s war crimes. Yet at the rooftop meeting, after his final “Sieg Heil,” Max strides away, temporarily free to indulge his secret in the only way he knows how. No longer obligated to the Nazi agenda, he devotes his entire being to his own personal program of the possession and dispossession of Lucia. He frees himself from political enslavement only to chain himself to an equally dangerous desire. Locking them both in his apartment, he then literally enchains Lucia, as if this will keep anyone from getting to her and vice versa.
Again, Max’s impulses are apparent to everyone but himself: his fellow Nazis know just what he’s up to, and the aged countess from the hotel looks on with pity as, at one point, Max explains Lucia’s “biblical” importance to his life. It is interesting to watch his transformation, or disintegration, from cocksure dominance in choosing and “directing” Lucia, through the excitement he feels at her eventual submission and consent, to the final confrontational sequence of events. Throughout, he grows progressively more pale and paranoid, terrified of losing the source of his shame/guilt/desire to his fellow Nazis. Political shame links with personal desire, implication with implication, like the chain he uses to keep Lucia “safe.” His very gaze, more preoccupied and rabid than the earlier camera he had trained upon the camp inmates, belies the fear he feels in his sense of suddenly, though really all along, being dominated by Lucia and his “protection” of her. Though he calls her his “little girl,” it is clear that he is in fact, and always has been, her little boy — even a little boy, as he literally needs to be told what to do by just about everyone. Even his brutality comes off viciously childish, like the futile attempts of an impotent sadist “striking out,” literally and figuratively, at fulfillment.
So Max the mouse hides in the dark, while Lucia allows herself to be chained up like a panther. As a panther, she is both fearful of Max and capable of instilling fear in him. Now that Max is cut loose from the sanctuary of Nazism, she is able to meet him on his own ground. She breaks glass under his bare feet, and penetrates his own mouth with jam-filled fingers. Both of them are unwilling or unable to make a move out of this dark destiny and history fatally locking them together. Is it a simple preference for pain? Or is the immense shame and guilt they both feel in regard to one another something which can only be expiated through each other, through a torturous reenactment of their past? In this sense, their alternate role-playing of captor and captive becomes perversely self-defeating, as they are forced essentially to play their former selves. However, there is an added desperation on both their parts to fulfill and destroy themselves and each other, to sacrifice themselves — that is, to holocaust themselves — on the altar of sex.
The whole conflict becomes a violent dance of power struggles: within them, between them, between love/hate, desire/repulsion. And like all dances there are variations and repeated themes, with slow strangling embraces becoming fierce disengagements. By the end both Max and Lucia are expended, the film itself is expended, and we’re all locked together in the same room, with close-ups boxing in heads like decapitated gifts presented to us. After all the implications of what happens when you turn bright lights on buried shame and enchained desires, we’re left in near-darkness and stillness. The two colorless characters are reduced to soul-starved animals, stir-crazy and listless, devoid of any emotional as well as physical sustenance or nourishment. In a final bid at fulfillment, each puts on the vestments of their past: Max, an officer’s uniform, and Lucia, a little girl’s pretty party dress. Thus safely disguised as themselves, they venture out, only to get shot down like two stuporous corpses being put out of their misery.
As the last shots, from both the gun and Cavani’s camera, project from just about the audience’s perspective, the film’s final implication is explicitly confirmed: We may be the perpetrators as well as the spectators.