The Night Porter (Italian: Il portiere di notte) is a 1974 cult classic art film by Italian director Liliana Cavani, starring Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling featuring elements of Nazisploitation. Its themes of sexual and sadomasochistic obsession made it controversial at the time of release. The Umbrella DVD release describes it as “an intense power-play, piercing the darkness of guilt and pleasure…remains a riveting exploration of the depths of the human condition.”
It is 1957, 12 years after World War II. Maximilian Theo Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde), a former Nazi SS officer who had pretended to be a doctor in order to be able to take sensational photographs in the concentration camps, and Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling), a concentration camp survivor who had an ambiguous sadomasochistic relationship with Aldorfer. Flashbacks show Max tormenting Lucia, but also acting as her protector.
Lucia, now married to an orchestra conductor, meets Max again by chance. He is now the night porter at a Vienna hotel and a reluctant member of a group of former S.S. comrades who have been carefully destroying documents and “filing away” witnesses to clear all their names. Nazis, attempting to cover up their past by wiping out witnesses to their wartime activities. Max has an upcoming show trial for his war crimes. One of the group, Hans Folger (Gabriele Ferzetti), accuses Max of wanting to live ‘hidden away like a church mouse’. Max says that he does want to remain hidden but that he is still with them in spirit. Images of the past (the concentration camp) punctuate the present narrative with urgent frequency, and suggest that Lucia survived by being Max’s plaything. In an iconic scene, Lucia sings a Marlene Dietrich song “Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte” (“If I could make a wish”) to the concentration camp guards while wearing pieces of an SS uniform, and Max “rewards” her with the severed head of a male inmate who had been bullying her, a reference to Salome.
Lucia’s very existence is a threat to Max, because she could testify against him at the trial. Max goes to see a former Nazi collaborator, Mario (Ugo Cardea), who knows Lucia is still alive, and suggests they go fishing together; Max murders him to protect his secret. After Lucia’s husband leaves for another city, Max and Lucia soon fall back into their sadomasochistic relationship which eventually threatens them both. She and Max spend time together renewing their past lovemaking in a different hotel (Max has his Nazi jacket hanging in the cupboard and Lucia has bought a negligee like the one she wore in the concentration camp), Max confesses to the Countess (Isa Miranda), another guest at his hotel who seems to have a similar Nazi past, that he has found his “little girl” again. He tells the story of the severed head from the concentration camp. The Countess tells him he is insane; Max replies that they are both ‘in the same boat’. Folger has Max spied on by a youth who works at the hotel; he is seen watching by Max from the apartment where he has locked Lucia up. Max and Lucia have just played a S&M game in which Lucia smashed a perfume bottle which cut Max’s foot and Max crushed her hand underfoot against the same broken glass.
Max continues to work nights at his hotel night porter job but the police come to interview him about the murder of Mario. Max is spending days with Lucia at his apartment and sleeping little. Folger visits Lucia, who has been attached to a long chain by Max, ostensibly to prevent the other SS officers taking her away. He wants her to testify against Max, and also says that Max is ill. He suggests that Lucia must also be ill to allow herself to be in this position. Lucia sends him away, saying she is there of her own free will.
The SS officers are infuriated at Max for hiding the key witness and also because he says he will not go through with the trial, which calls ‘a farce.’ He says that he works as a night porter because he has a sense of shame in the night. He returns to Lucia telling her that the police questioned him and others at the hotel about Lucia being missing, on her husband’s orders, but no suspicion fell on Max. He has, however, quit his night porter job. The SS officers cut off the supply of food from a nearby grocers. Max and Lucia barricade the door to the apartment and ration their food. Max is shot in the hand by Klaus (Philippe Leroy) while taking rubbish out the back. He and Lucia continue to rot as their state of living descends. Max makes some attempts to seek help by phoning one of his old hotel friends, but the friend refuses to help. Max also implores the downstairs neighbor for help, but it turns out that Adolph (Nino Bignamini), the youth who had spied on him earlier, is there. Adolph will only get food for them if Max lets Lucia go. Max retreats again to the apartment where Lucia is almost unconscious from lack of nutrition. Meanwhile, one of the SS cuts the wires, making the electricity cut off in Max’s apartment. Max dresses Lucia, and clad in his Nazi uniform, they both exit the building and drive away in Max’s car. The SS car follows. Max’s car is then seen parked on a bridge. Max and Lucia are walking away from the camera in the dawn light. Two shots ring out, and the doomed lovers fall dead.