Sunday, August 2, 2020

Nazi Drag

It isn’t often, I suppose, that one sees a movie about an SS officer at a concentration camp and his young victim, and the victim is more unhinged than he is. The Night Porter (1974), by the mildly perverse but supremely ungifted Liliana Cavani, takes place in 1957 Vienna but repeatedly flashes back to wartime to give us the seed of their strange relationship. In flash-forwards, Max (Dirk Bogarde) and Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) go at each other like deranged rabbits. Then, to get in the mood all over again, they throw jars on the floor and walk barefoot over the breakage, sucking each other’s bloody wounds like vampires. You see, Max was a Nazi and Lucia was the young, androgynous prisoner he stripped bare, over and over, until her numbness transformed into sexual thrill. Rampling seems the perfect object of a prim Nazi officer’s ambiguous desire: unclothed, she resembles Donatello’s hermaphroditic David. Like two case studies out of Krafft-Ebing, Max eroticizes Lucia’s powerlessness, and she fetishizes his black-booted authority over her (a sort of Stockholm syndrome turned on its S & M head). They meet in a hotel lobby twelve or so years later; he’s a hotel porter and she’s the bourgeois wife of a conductor who’s on tour in Germany with his production of The Magic Flute (in one interminable scene, Max and Lucia keep glancing furtively at each other from separate rows during opening night, and not even Mozart can get the upper hand).

Film freak. Dirk Bogarde

But The Night Porter is atrocious without being especially shocking. You could say it fails as pornography, sexual politics, character study, and social criticism. It certainly fails as decadent art—it pales in comparison to outstanding achievements by Cavani’s countrymen Bellocchio, Visconti, Fellini, and Antonioni in all those areas. Scenes in The Night Porter are so incoherent that the whole movie feels like a cut-rate attempt at a Dada romp, with puzzling outbursts and stony-faced stares punctuating draggy, taciturn dialogue. The movie isn’t even amusingly campy—although one scene, a flashback to the homoerotic carryings-on at an officers’ pleasure party, features Rampling doing a topless striptease and singing a lilting Weimar-era tune as she wriggles and fondles herself, which is obviously a send-up of Dietrich in her scandalous “When Love Dies” number in Sternberg’s classic Morocco (1930). Three guesses as to who is sexier and more iconic.

Is there anybody else of note in this? Let’s see, there’s Gabriele Ferzetti (the enigmatic playboy in Antonioni’s great L’Avventura), who plays the psychiatrist Hans (boy, does he have his hands full!) and Isa Miranda as the countess, who is supposed to be deliciously decadent. The movie treats them both shabbily; they’re turned into crude, distorted jerks, and your moviegoer’s pleasure in their past roles (she worked for Rene Clément and Max Ophüls, among others) is sacrificed to Cavani’s putrid ineptness. Nobody comes out of this mess looking good as an actor, not even Max’s cat or the neighbor’s dachshund—the tabby sits passively, obviously finding the movie as boring as we do, and the dog runs out of the frame entirely. A truly inspired director would at least have supplied a closing shot of a church mouse, “hidden away” in Max’s apartment.

And what is it with leftist European filmmakers like Cavani and Alain Resnais who made movies about the death camps but never once mention the word “Jew” in the script? Were such enlightened exemplars of political progressiveness actually proud of themselves for their bravery?

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