|In Italy, something strange happened in the decade of the nineteen-seventies: its cinema became obsessed with shocking audiences, and its directors courted notoriety as a kind of validation as no subject was taboo. Italian movies of that period were not merely laced with sex and violence, many of them featured a real transgressive nature as if, in that religious manner close to the hearts of its citizens, they had to endure a kind of crucifixion to be meaningful, and surviving that ordeal, be that their characters' enormous suffering or the suffering of the end result through the excoriation of the critics and public opinion, was an end in itself.
Italians began the decade by gifting the world Last Tango in Paris, and ended it by vomiting up Cannibal Holocaust, the former at least regarded by some as a proper art movie, the latter relegated to trash status immediately, but were they really so different in intent? Slap bang in the middle was Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which in any other era would have been the worst slap in the face a night out at the pictures could visit upon audiences. Yet in this era, it was part of a stream of art, entertainment and tests of mettle in such challenging taste that it was par for the course amidst the likes of Zombie Flesh Eaters or Caligula.
Male directors like Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento, Tinto Brass, and so forth, well, you could just about understand their impulses in flinging extreme material at their viewers, but there were female directors at it as well, like Lina Wertmuller or the talent behind The Night Porter, Liliana Cavani, no shrinking violets they, proving women's creative minds could go to places just as sobering and grim as anything their male counterparts could dream up. Cavani had been inspired to make this by her experiences interviewing Holocaust survivors for a television documentary, intrigued as to why they could not decide to forget the horrors they had seen, and were compelled to revisit.
What she did with this spark of an idea was, to put it mildly, eccentric, and appeared to have no further bearing in fact, but the basic plot for The Night Porter was that British stars Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling played an ex-Nazi Commandant and one of the inmates at his concentration camp respectively, and they met again in 1957, some time after the war had ended. However, after initial surprise at recognising one another in Vienna where Bogarde was the porter of the title and Rampling was a socialite whose status in the world had been restored, something odd happens: they launch themselves into a sado-masochistic affair which sends them into a joint downward spiral.
Seeing as how the believability factor was low, surely Cavani was aiming to shock, right? That was how the film was reacted to back in 1974, where it turned into an unlikely hit across the world still reeling from Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, yet while he went on to success after success on the global stage, Cavani, who continued to work, never made anything anywhere near as high profile again. Were audiences more accepting of these movies from a man, or had The Night Porter simply been beyond the pale for anyone who watched it, leaving them ashen-faced and unwilling to return to this filmmaker lest she come up with something as disturbing again? At least Bertolucci had turned many people on.
But despite the sexual element to The Night Porter, there was nothing to indicate it was intended as titillation. In other obsessively carnal relationships in cinema, from 9½ Weeks to Close My Eyes to Basic Instinct to Blue is the Warmest Colour, there was a man orchestrating the drama towards an erotic response, yet Cavani did not appear to hold any interest in that domain. Here, while she showed the couple's sex games, we could take no joy in them because they were, in essence, joyless, borne of misery and furthering that degradation for two people who had been through so much revulsion that it was their most comforting form of communication. Their connection was so deep we could never understand what made it tick. Why make them an ex-Nazi and camp survivor at all, then?
It appeared to be a statement on the allure Europe found for the Second World War, worrying at that still-open wound with an attraction it would never want to acknowledge, yet was so much part of the society as to be positively mainstream. Although the film's most famous scene was a flashback to Rampling playing Salome in kinky Nazi attire (or lack of it), there was nothing arousing about it, no matter how many tried to process this matter over the years, it seems to be geared to our disgust and shame, as you could reason was the correct response to a world war that featured an attempted genocide at its rotten heart. And indeed, the film's glacial pace and lack of any warmth in its characters would indicate we were intended to mull over the worst aspects of humanity for its entire, very long two hours of running time. Yes, The Night Porter is a cult movie, but it's aggressively charmless, features no acts of heroism, and finds the planet degraded to the point of insanity by the aftermath of the mass conflict.
[The Night Porter 4K restoration is on Blu-ray and Digital 30 November 2020 from CultFilms.
There are two interviews as special features, one a video essay with Cavani, and the other, more traditional talking head with Rampling, both offering fascinating insights into their intentions and how something like this gets made.]