Reviewed by
Chris Galloway

Title: The Night Porter: Criterion (1974)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

In Liliana Cavani's scintillating drama, a concentration camp survivor (Charlotte Rampling) discovers her ex-torturer / lover (Dirk Bogarde) working as a night porter at a hotel in postwar Vienna. When the couple attempt to re-create their sadomasochistic relationship, his former SS comrades begin to stalk them. Operatic and disturbing, The Night Porter deftly examines the cruelty and decadence of Nazi culture.

Director: Liliana Cavani
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Philippe Leroy, Gabriele Ferzetti.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - dual layered; 27 chapters; rated NR; 118 min.; $29.95; street date 1/11/00.
Supplements: None.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: D/C-/D-

I received my package of DVDs to review, mostly excited that For All Mankind was in that package (I was finally going to see it!), tore it open and looked over the DVDs I had. And of course one caught my eye immediately. It was the Criterion edition of The Night Porter and if you look at the cover above this page you'll see why it caught my eye. A half-naked woman posing on the cover in an SS hat over part of a swastika, all I could think was "whoa!"

I had only heard of The Night Porter because I visited the Criterion webpage after a few weeks and saw it announced for release. It then slipped my mind and I never bothered with it again. I was going to end up buying it (I want to get every last Criterion disc-I'm a man on a mission!) so it didn't matter if I knew what it was about or not. I just ordered Fishing With John recently and I don't even know what that one is about. But it's a Criterion disc so "gotta get it!" Yeah, I'm sick, but hey, I have to have some short-term goals to make it to those long-term goals.

The heavy symbolism and disturbing look of the cover had my complete interest. I forgot that For All Mankind was even in that package. I read over the back and the booklet, which was probably a mistake (I usually read the booklets after I view a movie) because I was then looking for a disturbing and thought-provoking film. I actually popped this one in before FAM and watched it. I will say I was slightly disappointed and didn't think much of it at first, not finding it as disturbing or as thought-provoking as it was being advertised, the Criterion packaging was over blowing it just a bit. But I watched it a few more times and my appreciation grew a bit for it.

We're not talking an appreciation like I had with Brazil or Ravenous, where I absolutely hated the movie on first viewing but loved it on a second. This was more a case of watching it, not thinking too much of it (but not hating it), watching it a few more times and only coming out thinking it as just "okay".

The film takes place in post-war Vienna. Max (Dirk Bogarde), an ex-Nazi officer is working at a local hotel as a porter on the night shift (hence the title). One night, as a party seems to be returning to the hotel from a concert, Max recognizes the conductor's wife. She is Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) and as we see in flashbacks she was a prisoner in a concentration camp where Max was located. While there, the two had a sadomasochistic relationship together. He would shoot at her as she ran around the room (looking as though they were having a great time), make strange love in front of the other prisoners, hurt each other and she would even dance for him and some of the boys, wearing nothing but those suspenders and the SS hat like on the cover.

Max is overcome by these thoughts of the past, as is Lucia who is also experiencing flashbacks. Max also has other problems. Some of his Nazi buddies, led by Hans (Gabriele Ferzetti, who was Draco in the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service) are coming down on him because it's time for him to go on trial. His buddies are trying to get him ready and sort out all the messy details, including "filing away" possible witnesses. One of the possible witnesses is obviously Lucia and Max ends up going to a great length to protect her. When his buddy Mario recognizes her, Max quickly kills him to keep her presence a secret and then has another problem for his buddies suspect Mario's death was not an accident. And the inevitable happens where Max and Lucia get together again and start reliving the past.

The film has been accused of "sensationalizing" the holocaust but I don't know if I really see that. Their relationship was wrong on many levels and the holocaust is presented more to show the absolute sickness of it and also gives a sort of reason for it to begin. But it is never really shown why this sadistic relationship happens between the two. You can guess but it's never really presented. Max being a member of the most infamous fascist party in history is probably reason enough as to why he gets a kick out of this type of a relationship. A Nazi with a female Jewish prisoner with whom he can do whatever he wants probably does it for him. But it's Lucia I'm more interested in.

I can guess as to what happened. A young woman scared out of her mind at first finds one of the officer's taking a liking to her and feeling helpless, gives herself to him. And somewhere along this abusive relationship she actually starts to like it and really get into it. Of course I'm picking this out of nowhere as the movie never really presents anything to explain Lucia's actions or behavior

While I had a problem with this, the first half offers a few disturbing moments and a few moments of honest thought. The last half is a bit of bummer. The two finally get back together and it appears a love story is trying to bubble out of this, which does not fit. As well, Max looks as though he is becoming a more emotional and innocent creature. While I can understand the man's shame of his past actions, the guy comes off as more feminine in the last half. The guy who ripped off a prisoner's head and really got into the Sadist scene becomes a helpless little creature who admits to being in love with Lucia and cannot live without her. Love? What does that have to do with Sadism? I'm not the big expert on Sadism (the subject repulses me) but from what I've learned on de Sade, he would rather butcher his lover and have his way, whatever got him off. It has nothing to do with love.

But still the guy likes cutting up his girl and hitting her and she overly enjoys it. Maybe a sort of emotion can be built out of this that will bond the two but not love. I'm guesing it's more lust. Director Liliana Cavani (yeah! A woman!) starts it off as a character study but then ends up bringing out the feeling of a love story. A sick one, but a love story still, and since the characters are not the romantic types, that feeling does not go with them.

And getting a little picky I had trouble buying some of the concentration camp scenes. While I'm sure that stuff like this probably did happen unfortunately, I doubt it was made as knowledgeable as it is shown in this movie. To my understanding, a member of the Nazi party even looking at a Jewish woman funny would get in serious trouble. But maybe it did happen like it is shown here.

The movie had plenty to work with to make it as thought provoking and as disturbing a movie as it wants to be but never actually succeeds. Its look at Nazi culture and human behavior is not too deep with only a few interesting points. Its statement saying people cannot ever really change is fairly weak, since Max is still not the same person he was in the flashbacks. Maybe some people will find something more in it but I wasn't one of them. It was just an okay movie with okay characters, okay plotting and okay ideas. But at least it's never boring.

The DVD:

Criterion presented the film on a single sided, dual layered disc with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The image has not been enhanced for widescreen TVs.

The picture is basically a lost cause. While it has its moments, the overall picture is pretty sad. The back claims the disc is double layered for "optimal image quality". Well, there's nothing too special about it that they couldn't get away with on a regular single layered disc as the film is 118 minutes and has no extras whatsoever.

The colors in the movie are horrendously subdued. The movie is dark but the colors are completely washed out. Black levels are very weak and flesh tones come off more as beige than a true fleshy color.

Sharpness is not a strong feature. The movie is unfortunately quite soft all throughout; only once in a while does the image become very sharp. The print used also presents many problems. Grain, dirt and debris never lets up, although it could have been much worse.

What did annoy me was a big ugly hair at the top of the image, just hanging there during the scene where the two "lovers" meet up again. It's there the whole time. I don't know whether it happened during filming but I think it's something that could have been removed. I was just starting to appreciate Criterion's good work in restorations lately and then this ragged effort comes along. While not as bad as Salo (nothing from them could be as bad) it's still very bad.

We then get a mono track and like all Criterion's mono tracks it only comes out of the center speaker. The film is in English (even though it is an Italian film) and the dialogue is easy to hear and distinguish. Sometimes a bad dubbing job occurs but I don't know if that could have been helped (it looks as though some of the actors did not speak English). But there is a lot of background noise like hisses and scratches. As well, I noticed a couple instances where the music breaks up. Nothing too bad but you notice it happen. I'm probably being easier on it because it's a mono track but the important thing is you can hear it and understand it and both those factors are true.

In supplements we get nothing! You get the color bars (yea) and a booklet. Not a bad booklet but it makes the film appear more engaging than it actually is. I was surprised with the menus. While I'm not big on menus (other than the rather funny one on Office Space) I was just happy to see Criterion not stick some boring still menu screen on the disc. All the menu screens are animated.

But I can't recommend the disc. The film itself is nothing more than a mediocre thriller and not the lavish, controversial character study it wants to be. And Criterion's DVD is nothing to be excited about, except for the interesting cover.

Support DVD Movie Guide, visit our sponsors.

Menu: DVD Movie Guide | Archive | Top