Alone in Vienna: “The Night Porter”

Alone in Vienna: “The Night Porter” January 6, 2021

I don’t intend to issue a verdict on this movie, which is about the secret postwar love affair between a former Nazi torturer and one of his victims. It’s the kind of premise where I think most people go in, if they go in at all, saying, “Convince me that this was worth making,” and I have a lot of criticism for the film but did also end up thinking that that isn’t the right approach to it. So here are certain smaller judgments of elements of the movie.

# The camera is often intensely emotional, as vs. the strict moral camera of Salo*. The movement of the camera emphasizes that we are becoming more intimate with one of the two central characters (sometimes when a camera closes in on an actor you feel like it’s trapping them, but here it’s more like the camera is attracted, even becoming complicit) or else that we’re moving further away from understanding them. There’s a lot of complex or conflicted movement, where the camera pulls in one direction as the actor moves off at a different angle (I think this is right–I should have taken notes). These movements are compelling, interesting. They also pretty much convinced me all the more that Pasolini had an insight that no other filmmaker has even attempted: an understanding of how to make a movie about exploitation which isn’t exploitative. I don’t think Cavani actually wanted to do that here! I think the panting camera was part of her goal! But contrast the Nazi cabaret scene in this movie with basically any shot of sexual violence in Salo and you’ll see what I mean.

* which I am still not telling you to watch, even though it’s one of the greatest movies ever made. Also sorry for not doing the accent; it makes the text around it weird.

# The one aesthetic choice I just think fails by its own standard is the decision to put Charlotte Rampling in green zombie makeup for her flashback concentration-camp scenes. (Or is it all lighting? She looks like a spring green Crayola, is my point.) I understand that you can’t in fact starve people for realism but this was painful to watch in the exact wrong way.

# Apparently I only watch Dick Bogarde in movies where he’s part of an unsettling, enmeshed relationship with shifting and unexpected power dynamics? This movie handles him much better than The Servant. He’s so alive in the present-day scenes, and deadened in the flashbacks. I have more to say about that below but for now I’ll just say that his acting is stellar.

# The circle of Nazis who put one another “on trial” in order to defend and absolve themselves is a genius idea, and bizarrely prefigures the real-life “catharsis as self-justification” captured in The Act of Killing. Everything about this circle and its ingrown, obsessive reenactments, its need to stay locked in one another’s sordid company, worked for me and gave real, strange insights into the nature of guilt and conscience.

# The plot decision to pull Bogarde’s Max out of that barbed-wire circle by way of a different enmeshed, secret relationship is also excellent. That feels right. And the relationship between Max and Rampling’s Lucia (I had to look up their names on imdb because their roles here are not about their individuality) gets at something I find really compelling: the creation of a private world in which moral judgment is suspended. A doomed rapt paradise of two, where the intensity of the connection between the inhabitants is created by the knowledge that there’s something wrong with this world, something outside of truth; but that maybe also there’s a kind of truth here that is not attainable in the public, moral world.

I will watch a million of these movies and maybe that was my problem. The Night Porter splits neatly into halves, with the second half taking place more or less entirely in this doomed private world of the lovers. And I just felt like I had seen every single scene many times before, in other movies about the doomed private world. If you have seen Dead Ringers and Heavenly Creatures and Secretary and Drugstore Cowboy and Shoplifters and that Jennifer Lynch movie about the kid being raised by a serial killer** and… I just don’t think this movie added anything to that except the Holocaust, and if that’s all you add then you probably shouldn’t have added it. (That’s only a criticism of this aspect of the movie; as I said, the secret Nazi circle stuff is powerful and needs its history.) You’ll notice that I didn’t even name the greatest examples of this kind of story, like Withnail & I, because those are distinctive enough that their scenes feel different, whereas The Night Porter‘s threatened-secret-world scenes seemed generic, existing solely to fill their spaces in the narrative.

** I know all these movies were made after Porter! Probably some of them were even influenced by it. But my point is more about you the hypothetical reader who loves Doomed Private World tales, not Liliana Cavani the filmmaker.

# I suspect I was left so cold by this section in part because the movie gave us more of Max’s interiority in the present-day scenes and (slightly) more of Lucia’s in the flashbacks. This seems totally backwards! The times when the audience would struggle most to understand or see into them are obviously the Nazi when he’s Nazi’ing, not when he’s guilty and lost, and the ex-prisoner when she’s seeking passion with her former torturer, not when she’s suffering at his hands. I know part of the point here is that other people are closed doors to us. That’s part of the suspension of judgment I think the movie intends to provoke. But the characters became so blank at the difficult points that it was hard to suspend not judgment but disbelief–hard to watch and think about the people, instead of about the artificiality of the situation. I think there must be a way to keep a character blank even to herself, yet in such a way that the blankness seems like a mystery and not just a necessity of the plot. I didn’t love Lust, Caution and can’t recommend it, but Tang Wei as Wong Chia Chi makes somewhat similar choices with more flashes of selfhood in the abyss.

Well, I know others saw things in this movie that I have missed here, and I would like to hear about them. It’s a film I’d read much more about even if I never rewatch.

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