Friday, September 26, 2008

The Night Porter

An assertion contested in John Coldstream’s biography, but one that Dirk Bogarde comes back to time and again in his autobiographical writings, is his presence at the liberation of Belsen.

Only during really bad thunderstorms would I remember Belsen, and the girl, shorn head covered in scabs, face cracked with running sores from which she carelessly waved away the April flies, who grabbed my hand and stumbled with me along the sandy tracks amongst the filth … - Dirk Bogarde, ‘Snakes and Ladders’, chapter 3.

In April … we came to Belsen and the first concentration camp: a hideous ‘liberation’ this time which erased forever the erroneous idea we had that ‘Jerry is really just the same as us’. No way was he. - ‘Backcloth’, chapter 4.

In Vught Camp, or perhaps in Belsen, I can’t remember exactly which now (both were as terrible) I had wandered through huts piled high with the relics of human life: hair in mounds, higher than myself, from shaven heads. - ‘An Orderly Man’, chapter 9.

This latter passage is perhaps the most contentious in Bogarde’s memoirs, since he discusses the atrocities in the context of 'The Night Porter', easily the most controversial film in which he appeared.

Ironically, its genesis was in a visit the director, Liliana Cavani, made to Dachau for a documentary. Witnessing a well-dressed woman laying a wreath not to any of the victims but to the Nazi officer with whom she’d had a sexual relationship whilst an inmate, Cavani began to wonder what would happen if the officer had survived and they met again after the war.

Accordingly, ‘The Night Porter’ begins in 1957, former concentration camp commandant Max (Bogarde) holding down the titular job at the Hotel zum Oper, a fading remnant of Viennese society. He attends periodic reunions with comrades from the war at which they hold mock trials for each other. These serve two purposes: a cathartic 'defence', allowing them to reassert their loyalty to the Third Reich, and a weeding out of actual evidence or witnesses against them - such evidence swiftly disappears ... as do witnesses.

As Max's 'trial' approaches, he starts to get cold feet. His fellow officer Klaus (Philippe Leroy), the self-appointed "devil's advocate" in these proceedings, takes the whole thing very seriously. When Max states that he just wants to live a quiet, unassuming life ("like a church-mouse"), Klaus assumes Max has something to hide and decides to have him watched and followed.

It turns out that Max does have something to hide: the latest guest at the Hotel zum Oper, Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), wife of a world famous conductor in town to premiere a new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflote*. Flashbacks weave through the fabric of Max's day-to-day life, revealing their earlier association: Lucia the submissive to Max’s sexual sadism, the whole perverse affair played out under the shadow of the swastika. In the film’s most provocative image, seized upon for the poster artwork, he exerts his sexual control by having her perform a torch song for the benefit of the other officers dressed only in trousers, braces, a pair of leather gloves and a Nazi cap. Costume has seldom been used in film to make such a darkly erotic statement.

This middle section of the film is Cavani's greatest achievement, the past and present interconnecting so fluidly; overlapping. As the Fifties-set sequence segues into a resumption of their relationship, this time with Lucia participating "of my own free will", things threaten to tip into melodrama. Lucia’s husband harries the Austrian authorities to investigate her disappearance; Max’s fellow Nazis get hot under the collar about the attention his indiscretions could draw to them. They stake out his apartment, preventing food or supplies from reaching him and Lucia. As Morgan Freeman puts it in 'Seven', "this ain't gonna have a happy ending" ...

To put it mildly, ‘The Night Porter’ upset quite a few people on its release and is still a cinematic hot potato now. My mother, one of staunchest Dirk Bogarde fans alive (her zeal for him in his matinee idol days is a good indication of how popular the man was - kind of the di Caprio of post-war British cinema), says of 'The Night Porter', "I didn't like him so much when he started making those kind of films."

The agitation of the mind? Just a bit! Cavani turns in a challenging and complex study of attraction, exploitation and twisted sexual dependence. She is aided by the searing performances of her two stars. Bogarde is disturbingly credible, his characterisation an extension of the ambitious, amoral Nazi sympathiser he had played four years earlier in Visconti’s ‘The Damned’.

But as compelling as Bogarde is, though, ‘The Night Porter’ is Charlotte Rampling’s film all the way**. Fearlessly putting herself through an emotional wringer from which most performers would recoil, she delivers a tour de force of acting. If you think, say, Emily Watson's performance in 'Breaking the Waves' or Nicole Kidman's in 'Dogville' are brave (and they are), then check out 'The Night Porter' - Rampling defines what a brave performance truly is.

*Its satirical treatment of Masonic secrecy notwithstanding, Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) is Mozart's most accessible opera, boasting some of his loveliest arias. Cavani turns it into a symphony of horrors, the way Kubrick did with Beethoven's Ninth in 'A Clockwork Orange'.

**Bogarde and Rampling became close friends after 'The Damned'. Bogarde only agreed to 'The Night Porter' so long as Rampling was cast as Lucia. His novel 'Voices in the Garden' is dedicated to Charlotte Rampling and her then-husband Jean-Michel Jarre.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

More on Cavani and The Night Porter at