Criterion // 1974 // 118 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // February 3rd, 2000
The most controversial picture of our time!
The Night Porter is a psychologically complex and disturbing film, which cannot be dismissed simply. This film certainly has some flaws, but overall is challenging and repulsive all at the same time.
The Night Porter is a 1974 film directed by Italy's most famous female director, Liliana Cavani. The film is set in post-war Vienna in 1957. Maximilian Theo Aldorfer is a former SS officer who consoles his personal guilt through his passionate devotion to his work as a night porter. Other former SS officers who meet periodically to eliminate any "witnesses" to Nazi atrocities populate Max's circle of friends. Max is enjoying his newfound life and freedom until his world is turned upside down by the arrival of Lucia at his hotel. Lucia was a concentration camp inmate who was seduced and became Max's lover.
Lucia and Max recognize each other and slowly the memories begin flooding back into both their minds. Eventually, both revert back into old habits as the flames of their torrid and forbidden past come rumbling to the surface. The film deals with the deep psychological underpinnings of the captor/captive relationship as well as the heightening of senses and adrenaline that war and other extreme circumstances can create as well as the dependency we can have on those feelings.
Watching this film through to its conclusion took a lot out of me. This is one very disturbing film. Not in the same sense as something like Happiness is disturbing (graphically depicted subject matter) but rather a deeper rooted sense of despair and isolation. This is one of the most powerfully shocking films I have ever seen. But it's great!
The Night Porter is so well acted, that the film hardly comes off as contrived. Rather, it almost has a documentary sense about it. Dirk Bogarde is wonderful as the cool and collected Max. We get an immediate sense of Max as completely and totally in control of his surroundings. A fastidious creature, he is impeccably dressed and always on time. Max's world is thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Lucia, and Bogarde plays this moment beautifully.
Charlotte Rampling turns in an equally stunning performance as Lucia. Her bony good looks allow for the several flashbacks Cavani employs where Lucia is still a Nazi captive in the concentration camps. Lucia is also a psychologically challenging character to understand. Why would she adopt a submissive attitude towards sex with her captor? Is it out of a sense of survival, or does she actually enjoy this role? Thankfully, Cavina provides no easy answers, leaving it up to you, the viewer, to decide which is the more appropriate motivation. Typical of foreign films, The Night Porter is anything but formulaic.
The DVD is presented in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but is not anamorphically enhanced. The video transfer is awfully good, though, and does not suffer from any of the problems we have seen so often with other non-enhanced discs. There is no digital over-enhancement or ringing. Edges are clean and crisp. The colors are well saturated, if a bit muted at times, which strikes me as the director's intent. There were a few nicks and scars, but never enough to distract from the overall presentation. All in all, this is another wonderful picture from the folks at Criterion, not that I would expect anything less from this great company.
The audio track is presented in its original mono configuration. It sounds about as good as a mono soundtrack from 1974 could possibly sound. The dialogue is clear and well centered. There are no pops or hisses present. Once again, Criterion proves that the sound is just as critical as the picture, and there is nothing better than a well-restored original soundtrack.
My only disappointment worth registering on this disc is the literal complete lack of extras, not even a trailer. I know that Criterion has to make business decisions with what will and won't command the higher special edition prices. But, being a fan of extras, especially with films like this one, I can't help but think this one would have sold an equal number of discs. I guess that number wasn't high enough to warrant the added expense of things like commentary tracks.
The Night Porter is a taut psychological examination of sado-masochism and Nazi culture. Be sure to grab this one for at least a rental, unless you find the subject matter too disturbing. This film was one of the first in a sub-genre of Italian filmmaking dealing in Nazi-sexploitation. While not nearly as sleazy as some of its followers, it clearly treads a fine line, successfully I think.
Criterion is commended for bringing this film to DVD. I am glad to have it and will certainly watch it again. They are cautioned that this court would prefer extras, especially the quality commentary tracks they are known for. The director and actors are all applauded for their work here, and released with the court's apologies.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Unrated