What happens when Lucia reencounters Max for the first time since the war provides the narrative thrust for this controversial film, recently reissued on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection. Generally speaking, I respect Criterion’s choices and try to glean something from even the most challenging films they issue. But whatever redeeming qualities lie within The Night Porter, which mostly concern the utterly outré scenario in which the two primary characters find themselves, are drowned by the weight of Cavani’s pretentions. There’s luridness inherent in the conceit of portraying a torturous SS goon as a sympathetic individual. Max is depicted as being incomplete without the woman he seems to regard as some sort of soul mate. And Lucia appears to have not shaken a deeply embedded case of Stockholm Syndrome as she willfully abandons her symphony conductor husband to rekindle her dark romance.
Whether or not The Night Porter is a piece of exploitation (or more specifically, Nazisploitation) is almost beside the point in light of how dull the storytelling feels. Cavani seems to pull her punches when it comes to displaying any truly shocking behavior. The structure is, if anything, what keeps the film mildly, morbidly interesting. We jump back and forth between flashbacks to the concentration camp, as recalled by the principal players. There’s homosexual sex in full view of the starving camp inmates. Lucia is seen topless, wearing a modified SS uniform, while performing a Marlene Dietrich number for a group of SS officials. Maybe it’s due to the passage of 40 years, but none of this material is either shocking or titillating. It just sits there, attempting to provoke a reaction that simply isn’t worth the effort.
Whatever one may think of film itself, Criterion’s high definition presentation is beyond reproach. Alfio Contini’s cinematography is the show stealer here, with its sickly muted colors casting a deliberately unattractive, unapproachable pallor over the proceedings. The 1080p transfer conveys this visual anemia perfectly, with a layer of moderately thick grain ensuring an authentically ‘70s look. Movies seldom possess so much visual character in the digital age. The LPCM mono soundtrack is perfect, with such good fidelity that the glaringly bad ADR is all the more apparent. The dialogue carries so much resonance that the fact that it was all recorded in a studio and poorly integrated in the overall mix stands out like a sore thumb (not a fault in the Blu-ray presentation, but rather with the original sound design).
The slim selection of special features includes a nearly hour-long 1965, Liliana Cavani-directed documentary Women of the Resistance. This piece doesn’t really play as a great companion to The Night Porter, but appreciators of Cavini will be happy to have it. There’s also a newly-filmed interview with Cavani, who looks back on Porter for about ten minutes.
It would be too easy to proclaim The Night Porter a “daring” film, as it doesn’t seem that Cavani truly had anything of interest to say. Casting a twisted, unhealthy romance against the ugly backdrop of Nazism took chutzpah, but the end result is a two-hour bore. Though it’s slightly redeemed by excellent production values and subtle performances by Bogarde and Rampling (who do what they can with thinly-written roles), this is ultimately cinematic sleight of hand. Though I’m aware there are many (including, obviously, the normally superb-of-taste curators of The Criterion Collection) who strongly disagree, Cavani’s portrait of decadence is hollow.