The Night Porter review – descent into sex and Nazism still chills

Mixed feelings are the only ones possible about the rerelease of Liliana Cavani’s 1974 shocker The Night Porter, a ripe piece of upper-middlebrow arthouse scandal in its day. The extremes of critical responses – disgust or contrarian acclaim – have both dated, although it is undoubtedly well acted by Dirk Bogarde, who brings his habitual wintry aplomb.

Bogarde plays Max, a fastidious, elegant, mysterious man working as a night porter in a hotel in Vienna in the late 1950s. He is impeccably turned out and attentive to the guests, although the work is clearly a little beneath him. One evening a certain guest arrives: Lucia, played by Charlotte Rampling, the beautiful, shy young wife of a visiting American conductor, working on the State Opera’s current production of The Magic Flute. Their eyes meet, and they recognise each other with an ecstatic chill. Lucia is a Holocaust survivor, and Max is the fugitive SS officer for whom Lucia conceived a Stockholm-syndrome fascination when he coerced her into a grotesque, sado-masochistic relationship.

Lucia’s husband now has to leave Vienna for his next engagement; Lucia is staying in the city, ostensibly to go shopping, but really so she and Max can resume their dark, obsessive affair. Only now it is Lucia who has the upper hand.

The Night Porter emerged at a time when it was fashionable to see fascism and Nazism in terms of sexual psychopathology or chic decadence: it could be set alongside movies such as Visconti’s The Damned (1969), Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) and Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975). But there is something silly and cheesy in The Night Porter as well as shocking, and Max’s secret brotherhood of Nazis on-the run, with their trials and examinations of members, is a little contrived and unconvincing. They talk about Max’s timidity in being a night porter in the shadows, but surely all Nazis would have had to be in shadows? And is Max in the shadows anyway? Surely being a hotel porter in Vienna, in constant contact with well-heeled international guests, is a ridiculous risk to be running when he should be hiding out in Paraguay.

Is it in any way helpful or artistically truthful to see the Holocaust in the way it’s shown in The Night Porter? I’m not sure. But, however bizarre, I think the film is far superior to sugary, sentimental and illiterate pictures such as Life Is Beautiful or Jojo Rabbit. Perhaps there is something in its very crassness, horror and tastelessness that does at least jolt us towards an acknowledgment of pure evil.

The film made an enduring star of Rampling: she brought an erotic and tragic froideur to the movie, with her enigmatically unsmiling and mostly unspeaking presence. Bogarde is the only actor who could have carried off the role of Max, bringing his own cold basilisk stare to match Rampling’s.

One of Max’s seedy sidelines is incidentally to arrange for young gigolos to attend to the older female guests, and it could well be that Bogarde’s frigid porter is an ancestor of Ralph Fiennes’s concierge in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), seeing to the needs of elderly ladies. The Night Porter remains a strange, but intriguing period piece.

• The Night Porter is available on digital platforms from 30 November.