Is this the most controversial film ever made?

“To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” wrote the German theorist Theodor Adorno, suggesting, in his 1949 essay Cultural Criticism and Society, that artistic expression had been rendered inadequate as a tool to understand reality after the Holocaust. In her 1974 film The Night Porter, Italian director Liliana Cavani challenged this theory, taking it to its logical extreme. She used a concentration camp as the setting to explore a crazed sexual bond between an adolescent prisoner and an SS commandant, and how, years later, this psychological poison has pervaded their souls.

Amid the furore after its release – which included intensely negative reviews from both sides of the Atlantic, and an attempted ban by the Italian ratings board – with typical nonchalance, Cavani told The New York Times: “This is nothing compared to the numberless couples who tear each other apart psychologically.”

Half a century on, however, does The Night Porter still seem like a provocation that plumbs the depths of bad taste? With the film’s recent restoration and re-releases, as well as renewed conversations around cinematic depictions of the Holocaust, many have revisited the film and remain unimpressed by its content. Others are perhaps seeing the film more as Liliana Cavani originally intended: as an artistic reflection of how sexual obsession – in all its often-misplaced fervour – can be fascistic in its tunnel-visioned ferocity. Cavani herself put it more simply: “love comes always with a price to pay“.  

The Night Porter is set in Vienna in 1957, where a former Nazi commandant, Max (Dirk Bogarde), works in an upmarket hotel. There, he clashes with former SS colleagues who are determined to purge themselves of any shame about their roles in the Final Solution and eliminate any surviving witnesses. Max, however, would rather forget his past and move on, living his life quietly, he says, “as a church mouse”. His careful world is upended when Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), now married to an American composer, walks into his hotel lobby – the very woman he sexually abused while she was a prisoner in his camp, and with whom he entered into a sadomasochistic relationship. Reunited once more, their twisted folie à deux resumes and a fervent debasement begins – now, on both sides.

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