The Night Porter (Italy, 1974):
(Il Portiere di Notte)

Though less a hot-button item than Last Tango in Paris, Lila Cavani's clammy danse macabre gave way to nearly as much porn-versus-art yakking, even if the offending baggage here is mostly ideological. Much of the disgust centered on the movie's use of the Holocaust as background for the sleazy theatrics of a former SS officer and the young prisoner he used to violate, reunited years later for a reprise of their affair. Cavani virtually gives the game away by casting with the kinky iconography from another Nazi carnival, Visconti's The Damned -- thus, Dirk Bogarde attempts to hide his past behind the managing desk of a Vienna hotel until he bumps into Charlotte Rampling, his anorexic concentration-camp Lolita, now the respectable wife of an opera maestro. It's 1957, and Bogard arranges meetings for his monocled German pals, all Nuremberg escapees bumping off potential witnesses. Rampling is next on the list, but Bogarde has fallen for his former jailbait plaything -- the two hole up in his apartment, bring out the chains and the broken glass, and let the good times roll. Made one year before Susan Sontag's essay, the film is awash in Fascinating Fascism, and all its troubling intimations: pushing the audience's buttons, Cavani cuts from a Mozart aria to green-tinged barracks rape (both "spectacles" rendered, problematically, by her camera and the viewer's gaze), and imagines Salomé as a Dietrichian Swastika dirge, decapitation-capper included. Questions about the irresponsibility of the project remain utterly valid, yet it is by no means Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS -- Cavani's far subtler cruelty locks the characters within a grid of guilt, memory and disgusted passion played out in the fallout of unspeakable horrors, where ignoring the past compulsively leads to repeating it. With Philippe Leroy, Gabrielle Ferzetti, and Isa Miranda.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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