Photographer: Ray Spence
A conversation with a friend who is very involved in historical research on the Holocaust sent me back to The Night Porter, the controversial 1974 film by Liliana Cavani. My friend had not seen it, but was aware of the criticism levelled at the film when it came out, especially by Primo Levi, the Jewish Italian writer who had survived Auschwitz and allegedly committed suicide in 1987. When the film was released Levi said that it was "based on the idea Cavani has of sex. This has nothing to do with the camps”. No indeed, it has not. My friend thought it eroticised Nazism and believed it to be exploitative. I was not convinced by this.
I saw Cavani's film in 1976. I was way too young back then to really grasp it fully. But even then I understood that the film was not about the camps but about sexuality and an abusive relationship framed by the history of German fascism, which incidentally Cavani had earlier researched when making documentaries for RAI. I do remember being moved by it and finding Charlotte Rampling's and Dick Bogarde's performances most compelling.
So I watched it again after a long gap this morning, while waiting for a delivery - you know the kind of thing you have to be sitting at home waiting for, as no one can ever tell you the exact time when your item will be brought by the courier.
Photographer: Terry Slater
I enjoyed watching it, despite being really perturbed by it. Once again Rampling and Bogarde struck me as superb actors - she was perfectly suited to the role, with her lithe frame the flashback scenes in which she appears as a teenager at the camp are totally believable. And I discovered that there was a lot to be unpacked about this film, which perhaps appeared at the wrong time to be appreciated. Homo-erotic signifiers are scattered throughout the film, where we also see the intimate, though never physical, relationship of the heterosexual male protagonist with Bert, a homosexual Nazi - a reminder of the ambiguity of attitudes to homosexuality in Nazi Germany, where homosexuality was both promoted and suppressed.
Briefly, for those who don't know it, the film is set in Vienna in 1957. A group of former Nazis lives a tranquil, anonymous life, having escaped and having never been tried. Max (Bogarde) is one of them and works as a night porter in a hotel. They have their ritual formal meetings which they call 'trials', which end with a rehabilitation and destruction of all evidence, including the 'filing' of eye witnesses. Max was one of those Nazis who executed given orders but he certainly took pleasure in doing it and had a way of getting his own kicks at the camp - never named. Too small a fish to be hunted down, one of the many Nazis who would easily slip into anonymity, as many indeed have done. But guilty nevertheless. As he is awaiting for his 'trial' Lucia, a Jewish young woman who had been an inmate at the camp where Max used to perform his 'medical experiments', now married to an American conductor, comes to stay at the hotel. She is accompanying her husband on a tour. Lucia and Max immediately recognise each other. They had had an abusive sexual relationship back at the camp, one in which she and Max had also created an unbreakable bond. She was Max's 'little girl', willing to be because she wanted to survive. After some time and an initial resistance the two of them slip back into an intimate, passionate, doomed relationship which echoes that of the past, one in which they both re-enact the violence of the past mixing it with tenderness and genuine, if incomprehensible, affection. Cavani attempts to get inside the head of abuser and abused, rejecting black and white definitions of good and evil. There is a moment in the film which is very significant, where a chained Lucia in Max's apartment tells her interlocutor, who is trying to get her out, that she is there of her own volition. The ending is tragic, as can be expected.
What shall we make of this seventies art film? Is it truly to be reviled as suggested by its many critics?
No it is not. I dont even think that Cavani meant in any way to be disrespectful toward Holocaust victims by using the Holocaust as a frame. Cavani's Night Porter (the Italian title "Portiere di Notte" somehow does not translate too well into English as it really means Porter of the Night, the night being a reference to Nazism) is overdue for a reappraisal.
"In The Night Porter" writes Nick Impey, "Lucia is portrayed as liberated by her acceptance of a non-heteronormative sexual identity... Thus, the message of Cavani’s film is that a break from hetero-normative sexual identity can lead to release and equality in sexual couplings".
The message is relayed in a very disturbing way but anything that touches on human sexuality in a such a raw manner, depicting a co-dependent relationship is bound to be disturbing. The film often acts as a mirror.
When you watch yourself in the mirror what do you actually see?
Below is one of the most famous scenes of the film, in which Lucia performs Wenn Ich Mir Was made famous by Marlene Dietrich while at the camp
(All photos modelled by Alex B)