Directed by Liliana Cavani, The Night Porter (1973) stages the re-enactment, in 1950s Vienna of a wartime a sadomasochistic relationship between Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), a woman prisoner in the Nazi camps, and Max (Dirk Bogarde), a former SS officer. Married to a successful American conductor after the war, Lucia accompanies him for his work to the Austrian capital. There, she realizes that the night porter of their hotel is her former executioner (and lover) when she was detained in a Nazi camp. Despite the danger for Max (who ought to hide his Nazi past) and the pain for Lucia, the two lovers start again their sexual relationship, in a frantic and desperate bond. It is scarcely surprising that this controversial movie was “banned for obscenity” in Italy. Several Italian movie directors, such as Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini, took the defence of Cavani, signing a petition demanding the release of the movie. The scandal continued when the release of the movie in the United-States led to new disputes between its fans and its detractors. The controversy naturally helped building the reputation of this movie, which would become Cavani’s biggest success.
At the heart of Cavani’s disturbing movie lays one flash-back: Bare-chested, dressed with leather gloves, men’s pants and wearing a Nazi hat on her short hair, Lucia performs a macabre cabaret act for Max and other SS officers of the camp. At the end of the scene, Max gives a cardboard box to Lucia. She opens her present to find the chopped head of a detainee. This crucial scene (which has been used for the posters and the dvd jackets) obviously refers to the myth of Salome. A biblical character causing the death of John the Baptist, Salome remained until the 19th century in the shadow of her mother, Herodias. Initially Salome merely dances for her step-father, King Herod, in order to help her mother take revenge against the Prophet. Yet in his 1843 poem “Atta Troll”, Heinrich Heine opens up a new era for the myth when he argues that Salome ought to have been desperately in love with John the Baptist to ask for his head. Salome becomes a woman who gets what she wants after the dance. This turns the biblical character into a mythical heroine, who would become hugely successful. In the second half of the 19th century, literally thousands of versions of the story are written as Salome becomes a muse for many authors (Gustav Flaubert, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Stephane Mallarmé, Théodore de Banville, Jules Laforgue…), painters (Gustave Moreau, Gustav Klimt, Franz von Stuck…) and composers (Jules Massenet, Florian Schmitt). When Oscar Wilde writes in French a famous theaterplay on the subject in 1896, he takes the story one step further with Salome’s scandalous kiss on the prophet’s beheaded lips, which petrifies the myth into a perfect picture of hysteria. After his version of the myth, and its solemn musical adaptation by Richard Strauss (1905), the fascination for Salome seems to have faded. Artists rarely refer to Salome after Strauss, and if they do (as in the case of Guillaume Apollinaire, Alexandre Vialatte, Robert Desnos, Dorothy Parker, Francis Picabia) she never plays a major role in their work. With Salome at its centre and bringing about a scandal worthy of Oscar Wilde, Cavani’s movie seems to be an exception in the 20th Century. Focusing on the dance scene and enlightening its references to the biblical story, we shall see that Cavani’s transposition of the myth enables its renewal.
Accuracies and dystopia: Salome by the book
Cavani’s approach and her vision of Salome in the camps reflect her care for historical accuracy. One of the elements that increase the disturbing effect of such a controversial movie is the fact that Cavani did thorough work of historical documentation before filming sexual passion in the camps. Ten years before shooting The Night Porter, she already directed the four hours documentary Story of the Third Reich for the Italian television. She also directed The woman in the Resistance (1963) and interviewed Italian partisans, who were deported. Lucia, as a character, is directly inspired by this historical research. In fact, like the women Cavani interviewed, Lucia is not Jewish. In many interviews, Cavani underlined this aspect of her film (Marrone, 95). But her quest for historical accuracy went further. With the help of Piero Tosi (who was also Luchino Visconti’s costume designer) Cavani took great care in the reconstitution of the Nazi camp and even went at great lengths to get Dirk Bogarde an authentic Leica camera from 1940.
Cavani’s obsession for precise reconstitution shocked her contemporaries. Could such a sadomasochistic relationship take place in a concentration camp? Primo Levi famously depicted the movie as “beautiful and false” (48). And what was the point of finding original accessories? The care for details indeed creates a very kitsch atmosphere, aggravated by the sexual masquerade. In a renowned essay, in which she questions the motives of the success of Cavani’s movie, together with Leni Rieffensthal post-hitlerian production and a glossy book about the “SS regalia”, Susan Sontag considers The Night Porter as a token of a dangerous trend, which she calls “Fascinating fascism”. Indeed, the nostalgia of Nazism is pervasive in the movie: As Lucia and Max want to re-enact their affair, Max is surrounded by hidden former SS officers, some of them still living according to the values of the Third Reich.
But it would be wrong to see in The Night Porter just a disturbing longing for fascist horror. The movie an also be seen as an attempt to discuss Germany’s past. Intended as a “Tribute to Thomas Mann”, and followed by two other movies, Beyond Good and Evil (1977) and A Berlin Affair (1985), it is the first part of a trilogy reflecting upon the German past. There is a political involvement in The Night Porter because the director of the movie questions a whole civilization. She uses the myth of Salome to discuss these issues, decadent Salome being the ultimate fetish of civilized Europe. Interestingly, as we shall see, Cavani bypasses the romanticized Femme fatale and thus turns to the biblical version of the Myth.
For the spectator who sees the movie for the first time, the appearance of a “biblical story” in The Night Porter is very surprising. Why this sudden return of a Christian tradition rather than of a muse of the 19th in a movie that seems so concerned with the historical reconstitution of the Second World War? The answer lies once more in Cavani’s care for accuracy. Just as she tries to reconstitute the Nazi past, so she carefully refers to the biblical myth which can be found in the Gospels of Mark (6, 14-29) and Matthew (14, 1-13). In the movie, just as in the Bible, the story of Salome is told in a flash-back. Indeed, in the Gospels, when King Herod hears of Jesus, he is scared to face the power of the prophet John the Baptist, whom he executes. He then recalls how he gave the head of the dangerous prisoner to his stepdaughter, as a present for the dance she performed for him. Likewise, in the movie, Max recalls the Cabaret scene during a conversation with an old Nazi friend, Countess Stein. When he introduces Lucia’s performance and the offering of the chopped head, he underlines both the cultural reference and the temporal gap:
Max : It is a story from the Bible… Shall tell you?
Countess Stein : Please !
Max : It is not very pleasant…
Countess Stein : Go on!
Max : Well, it is a long time ago… Well you remember!”
Max also refers to Herod’s incestuous desire by calling Lucia ‘My little girl”. Lucia’s very young age is very accurate to the biblical myth. Her youth is reinforced by her morbidly skinny figure and by her the short hair. Far removed from the 19th century orientalist and voluptuous visions of Salome, Cavani remains thus faithful to the biblical story, when she stages Charlotte Rampling’s boyish body.
A leather new wind for the myth? A Political Salome
Yet while Cavani returns with great accuracy to the original biblical Salome, she also transforms the myth in a creative way. At first sight, the representation of the dance follows the historical approach. Cavani’s gloomy vision is indeed really far removed from Wilde’s and Strauss’ sexy teasing of the “seven veils”. But, as the dance does take place in the biblical text, Cavani take a distance from the Gospels when she attempts to turn the dance into a black mass. Indeed, there is no dancing when Lucia’s slow and painful movements, as she is Barefoot, floating in wide and manly pants, are filmed in a nauseating way. The real dance scene comes in fact later in the movie, as a flash back performed by a man, Bert (played by the Italian dancer and choreographer Amedeo Amodio) on the baroque “Dance of the Furies” by G.W. Gluck. The real dance is also much closer to the neo-Nazi aesthetics, than the sad cabaret scene performed by Lucia, which can be categorized as expressionism, a “degenerate art”.
In fact, one could argue that the burlesque cabaret revolves around the song and not the dance. Indeed, Max’s narration starts and ends with the song. But there is something odd with the latter, as if, like the dance, it would not really “belong” to Lucia. Firstly, because there is a meaningful interval: the voice starts singing while the camera is still focused on the audience; and secondly, because the singing is performed by Marlene Dietrich’s heavy voice. The frail and shy Lucia bears this voice as a little girl would wear a harsh make-up. Dietrich’s words sung by Lucia adequately describe her situation: she says that even if she could wish for something, she would not know what to wish for; and if she were to wish for a little happiness, then she would be nostalgic of her own sadness.
When she finishes the singing, she sits still on a chair. The orchestra keeps playing through the scene of the offering of the chopped head … a present she did not ask for! Unrequested, this present is packed in a box and not presented on a plate, which was Salome’s personal signature from the Bible to Oscar Wilde. In a way, this version of the myth brings, once again, Salome back to its biblical origins, where she serves her mother’s revenge. But even in the Gospels, Salome gets to dance, which is the symbol of her seduction) and to express a personal wish for the plate. As she is deprived from two key themes of the myth, the dance and the plate, Lucia stands for a radically passive and abused Salome. The role of the biblical reference to aggravate Lucia’s passivity is obvious when, after the Flash back, Max explains to the Countess Stein how he, playing the role of the dominating King, came up with this cruel and literary scenario: “Johannes was a prisoner who used to torment her. She just asked me to have him transferred. I don’t know why but suddenly the story of Salome came into my head. I could not resist it.”
Going hand in hand with the return to the Salome of the Gospels, the use of the myth in Cavani’s movie concentrates all the power over Lucia in Max, giving birth to a universal tale about domination. Opening the box, Lucia has no other option than to participate in Max’s cruel tale. She cannot disapprove, not only because she would risk death, but because she does not know better. Being entirely Max’s creature, she becomes part of his inhuman world. Showing the most unbearable sight, a consenting victim, Cavani suggests a dystopia where pure domination reigns. This human hell is at the same time very private (sexual) and very political (dealing with the memory of totalitarian domination), and above all, it is not meant to last. That is what Cavani shows when she spreads the myth out over time. Indeed, from the Bible to Oscar Wilde, Salome disappears right after the death of the prophet. But in The Night Porter, she comes back ten years later, barely grown. When Lucia arrives in Vienna she is socially and politically dominant: the wife of a famous conductor, she could also have denounced the night porter and his crimes. But after the Salome scene, their relationship resumes exactly as it was before: the duet reconstitutes the threatening atmosphere of the camp, so that Max can keep the part of the executioner. This dangerous liaison is maintained unchanged, absurdly and desperately, until the last scene, when the odd couple takes its last stroll. Lucia dresses up as a little girl, Max wears his SS-uniform and they walk like dolls towards their death… The historical resonance of the story of Max and Lucia as well as its embedding in the biblical version of the myth, turns Salome into a symbol questioning the way Europeans are dealing with their past. By situating the unbearable idea that a victim could be madly addicted to her executioner into the context of the Second World War, Cavani only refers to Sadomasochism to transform the myth of Salome into a radical questioning of the social order.
©1974 Lotar Film S.r.
Commenting on the sadomasochistic relation of the two characters, Cavani argues: “We are all victims or murderers, and we accept these roles voluntarily. Only Sade and Dostoievsky have really understood this” (Marrone, 220). Building her art on these two authors, the Italian filmmaker blurs the borders between the private and the public sphere. Therefore, she offers much more than kitsch pornography in The Night Porter. There is more than “a reserve of sexual energy” in Cavani’s “theatricalization of sexuality” (Sontag, 104). Through Lucia and Max’s macabre role-playing, Cavani carries out a reflexion on domination and its discontents. In The Cannibals (1969) she already had used the myth of Antigone to deconstruct a patriarchal public sphere. Four years later, she relies on the myth of Salome to deconstruct Europa’s apparent stability after the reconstruction. In so doing, she overcomes a certain petrifaction of the myth born with Heine. Salome was the muse of the 19th century, because she expressed sheer individual desire. In the nineteen-twenties, she grew out of fashion because she did not match the strong political concerns of her time. By politicizing the private, by returning to Salome’s biblical role, which is rooted in a political and religious conflict, Cavani stirs up the myth and paves the way for new interpretations.
Giardino, Alessandro, “Liliana Cavani’s La pelle: Debunking the Fake Promises of Postmodern Sexual Emancipation and the Silencing Effect of Cultural Oblivion”, Carte Italiane, Department of Italian, UCLA, UC Los Angeles, 2011.
Krautheim, Graeme, Pornography and corporeal memory in Liliana Cavani’s Nightporter, Hons. Bachelor of Arts, University of Alberta, 2007.
Lauretis, Teresa de. “Cavani’s Night Porter: A Woman’s Film?” Film Quarterly, 30.2, Winter 1976-7, p. 35-38.
Levi, Primo, The Drowned and the Saved, New York, Summit, 1986.
Marrone, Gaetana, The gaze and the labyrinth, the cinema of Liliana Cavani, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2000.
Meltzer, Françoise, Salomé and the dance of writing, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Sontag, Susan, “Fascinating Fascism”, Under the Sign of Saturn, New York, Farrar, 1980, p. 73-105.
Liliana Cavani’s Night-Porter – fully restored and remastered in HD under the supervision of L. Cavani, – is available on DVD & Blu-ray (Wild Side).