1957 in Vienna, and in this posh hotel works Max Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde) who is the night porter there, though what he keeps secret is his shady past, for during the Second World War he was a Nazi officer in a concentration camp. Times change, but for Max he is forever nervous that he will be uncovered as a criminal, though so far that has not occured and he lives in anonymity, tending to the guests yet remaining in contact with a collection of former Nazis who are obsessed with tracking down the witnesses who could identify them. For Max this becomes more pressing when Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling) walks into the hotel...
One of the most controversial films of the nineteen-seventies, The Night Porter continues to be problematic to this day, though for a work so designed to be provocative you would have perhaps hoped for an experience to jolt you out of any complacency you mght have been going through. Alas, as many have found to their cost as they give director Liliana Cavani's grey-hued misery-fest a try there was very little to engage in her tale of a sadomasochistic relationship being rekindled over a decade after the end of the war, and precious little to make the viewer think about the issues it brought up.
That was mainly for two reasons: the premise was so artificial that it didn't appear to have much relevance to real life or the way the survivors of the conflict felt about the Nazis (the Lucia character isn't even Jewish), and also because it was so grindingly boring that once you had got over the central idea - that the Austrian officer in the SS and the girl he sexually exploited should get back together and fall in a weird kind of love some time later - there wasn't much else for Cavani to do with them. She did concoct a halfhearted thriller plot to liven up the last half hour, but by that stage you were past caring, as nothing the main characters were doing had relevance to anything constructive or illuminating aside from a muted move to contemplate both victims and villains of the war having to exist in the same world now it was over.
In its favour, both Bogarde and Rampling offered a conviction to their roles which made it clear they were committed to the admittedly flawed efforts of their director, but a folly was a folly and no matter how good the acting was there was precious little aside from a depressive mood to separate this from the spate of Nazisploitation flicks emerging from Europe at the time. Fair enough, here were a couple of respected actors taking the leads, but the whole dubious attraction of the prurient to Nazi decadence was still being appealed to as you couldn't imagine anyone else taking it seriously. If the depiction of the war in flashback was hard to believe, then imagine how difficult to get along with the 1957 scenes were.
Those flashbacks did offer Rampling one of her most iconic images, that of doleful sexuality as she performed a song in part of an SS uniform - hat, gloves, trousers and braces and nothing else - as if to tell us we were not here to enjoy ourselves, these were diseased minds we were dealing with, or at least you had to assume that was the intention because the alternative, that this was meant to be titillating, just didn't hold a lot of water. By the time Max and Lucia are indulging themselves the conspiracy of former Nazis are taking an interest, which is supposed to up the tension yet with all we have seen being so alienating it's a chore to muster up much in the way of interest. Lucia is so coveted by Max (some twisted nostalgia, perhaps?) that he chains her up in his apartment, something she has mixed feelings about but relishes the sense of being so desired nonetheless. It concludes to no one's surprise, leaving you to pick over the illogicalities or wonder where the last two hours went. Music by Daniele Paris.