Tragedy and Trauma During World War II in Liliana Cavani’s THE NIGHT PORTER

By Robert Bellissimo

Writer/Director Liliana Cavani based The Night Porter on real events. She had been making a documentary for Italian TV on prison camps when she met a woman who was a concentration camp survivor, whose lover was an SS Nazi Officer. He had been executed by the Americans. This woman had moved to America, but came back to where her lover had been executed on the anniversary of his death every year to place a rose where he was killed. The place he was killed was also where she had been imprisoned during the war. She was not Jewish. She held socialist beliefs and her father was a well known socialist. 

This story haunted Liliana, and she had wondered what it would have been like if he had escaped, like many other Nazi’s had? What if years later they met again? This is how The Night Porter was born.

The Nighter Porter takes place 12 years after the war. Max (Dirk Bogarde) was an SS Nazi Officer who now works as a porter in a hotel in Vienna. Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) is a guest at the hotel. She is married to an Orchestra conductor, who she is with on tour. When Lucia and Max lock eyes it becomes clear that they know one another but, at this point, the audience doesn’t know how. The story is often told in flashbacks. We see Lucia in a concentration camp, where Max also is. He is dressed in his SS Nazi Officer uniform, and is filming Lucia and many other people who are naked, as they lineup to go through some kind of “health examination”. 

Before seeing this flashback, we initally only see Max as the night porter, who also is providing guests at the hotel with male prostitutes. However, in one of the flashbacks we see him dressed in his SS Nazi uniform watching a male dancer with a group of SS officers. This man is also now in the hotel and he dances privately for Max to reenact a time when they were in power during the war. It also seems as though he is in a relationship with this man. Other Italian filmmakers in the 1960s and 70s explored homosexuality among Nazi’s during the war. There is a myth that many Nazi’s were gay, although there is no evidence that the party was overrepresented by gay men. 

After Max sees Lucia, each flashback becomes more and more complex. We initally see that he tortured her, but then we begin to see that their was something between them. In one flashback, he cleans a wound on her arm and kisses it. In present day, Lucia goes out to buy a negligee that resembles one that Max gave her during the war. 

Lucia is freightened over seeing Max again, and tries to avoid him in the hotel. He then enters when her husband isn’t there, and questions if she is there to testify against him. This is part of the film’s subplot. 

Max is still friends with other escaped Nazi’s, and they are looking for any witnesses who could identify them during the war. They seem to believe their is an upcoming “trial” against them, and they are “filing” away any, and all witnesses that can identify them. One of them recognizes Lucia from a photograph, and knows that she is still alive.

In the hotel room, Max starts to hit Lucia and, before you know it, they are laughing and kissing on the ground. The relationship seems to be sadomasochistic in nature. Max tortured Lucia, but also protected her during the war, and one can assume saved her. Lucia seems to hate, and fear Max, but also love him.

This is where the exploration of trauma comes in. Lucia had been a teenager during the war. She witnessed horrific acts, and was subject to torture, but was also loved by the man who tortured her. This has led to her complicated feelings for Max. Hating him for what he did to her, but also loving him. Is it because he kept her alive, and gave her love, and affection when she needed it the most? It’s too complex to answer. 

Max refers to Lucia as his “little girl”, and that he loves her. In one of the most famous flashbacks in the film, we see Lucia topless, wearing an SS Officer hat doing a cabaret style song, and dance for a group of Nazis. She seems confident, and it arouses the SS officers. One may wonder, why is she enjoying doing this? Is using her sexuality a way to gain power over all of these men? Does she believe she can stay alive this way? Is she just pretending to enjoy all of this because they may hurt or kill her if she doesn’t? This is up for the audience to decide. Any kind of power she has here is quickly taken away, as Max presents her with a box that has a severed head inside. We find out in the present day that the person Max killed was a prisoner who was bothering Lucia. Lucia asked Max to transfer him to another camp, and Max decided to cut his head off instead. As he tells this story to a countess in the hotel, he laughs about it.

This is what is so complex about Max. He seems ashamed of his past. He chooses to work at night because he hates to be in the light. When he works alone at night he shuts off all of the lights. On the other hand, he seems to look back fondly on his time as an SS officer, and still has his uniform in his flat. Is this because he had power then, which he no longer has? This is up to the audience to decide.

Lucia and Max are clearly tied to one another. She leaves the hotel, and goes to live with Max at his flat. The Nazi’s find out about this, and they want Max to give Lucia to them. He refuses, and so he ties Lucia in chains, so that no one can get her. She once again is Max’s prisoner, and she seems to enjoy it. There is a scene where Lucia breaks glass on the bathroom floor, so that when Max walks in he will step on it, and cut his feet. She then puts her hand under his foot, and he steps on it. We hear her bones crack and this is all arousing to both of them. It’s a hard scene to watch, as well as the sex scenes, which always have an element of violence attached to them. This is part of the tragedy, and trauma of Lucia particularly, who clearly has been molded this way by Max as the result of the war.

They are both doomed if they stay together, but they choose to stay together. Max tells Lucia that everything can end if she goes to the police. Max can also end all of this if he gives Lucia to the Nazis. They both refuse. It’s as if they both died spiritually during the war. Max can no longer live with his shame or without Lucia, and Lucia can’t live any longer without Max, now that she has seen him again. 

I wonder what her life was like with her husband. We never see him, and know nothing about their life and relationship, other than the fact that he’s a successful conductor. The trauma is there, but perhaps she had been able to try to build a new life, and a better one with her husband? If only she never ran into Max, which has possibly made her regress to the state of mind she had during the war.

As they both stay in Max’s flat, not knowing what to do, the Nazi’s cut the electricity, stop any food orders going into Max’s flat, and wait outside with guns.

The last scene is haunting and complex. Max decides to put his SS Nazi Officer uniform on, and Lucia puts on the negligee that she bought, and even dresses up to look like a little girl. He drives away in a car and stops at a bridge, knowing he’s being followed. As he and Lucia walk outside they are murdered. Why does Max put on his SS Officer Uniform? Why does Lucia agree to go, and dress as she looked during the war? Like most things in this film, it’s too complex to answer, and poses questions to the audience without answers. It invites the audience to have their own point of view about these characters choices. 

My feeling is Max dressing in his uniform, and Lucia dressing up as a little girl in a negligee, that resembles the one that Max gave her during the war, is because it’s a symbol of their love at that time, as well as Lucia’s trauma, and Max’s shame/pride in his past power. They know they are about to die, and want to die together.

The sadomasichistic nature of the relationship is a controversial one on the surface. However, it is not simply exploring sadomasichm between a Nazi and a concentration camp survivor for the sake of titillating an audience, like many American critics felt at the time. It’s to explore the trauma and affects of the war. In a way these characters died a spiritual death because of what they experienced, (in the case of Lucia), and what they did, (in the case of Max). It’s a film that always leaves me emotionally drained by the end of it, and one where I always make new discoveries, like any work of art.

It has incredicle performances by Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling, a beautiful and haunting score, and expressionistic cinematography by Alfio Contini. I’ve seen it many times, and it has become one of my favourite films. I first saw the film at the BFI in London. My friend had an extra ticket, and I thought it was a good title. I didn’t know anything about it, but I found it haunting, engaging and emotionally powerful, as well as challenging.

You can see the film on the Criterion Channel. I’ve also reviewed the film on my YouTube channel, and discussed it with Writer Samm Deighan, who wrote about it in her incredible book, (which I highly recommend), “The Legacy Of World War II In European Arthouse Cinema”.

Leave a Reply