A NOTE ON "THE NIGHT PORTER" (Liliana Cavani 1974)
(c) Bettina Mathes 2008

Memory is performative. To remember is to repeat.
Sometimes memories are of fantasies. When this is the case, to remember is to revive the fantasy.
Not every memory gets performed, not every fantasy is revived. Some memories (and fantasies) are so horrific that we censor their re-presentation. Perpetrator fantasies (memories) of the Holocaust as sexual extravaganza belong to this category.

There are critics (those who tend to neglect the formal aspects of memory) who see in Liliana Cavani's courageous and therefore controversial
The Night Porter nothing but "Nazi chic." For them the film is an “eroticization of fascism” (Sontag), a shamelessly pornographic fantasy of the Shoa, a "sentimental idyll … exalting romantic love between victim and victimizer, against the brute reality of Nazi violence," (Marga Cottino-Jones) using the Holocaust as a mere "backdrop to the erotic/sadomasochistic misadventures of Max and Lucia, Nazi and victim" (Rebecca Scherr); a "despicable attempt to titillate [the viewer] by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering." (Ebert)

I’m not convinced.

It's true, there is something despicable in the deadly, compulsive  & sadomasochistic relationship between Holocaust survivor Lucia Atherton (Charlotte Rampling) and former SS officer Maximilian Aldorfer (Dirk Bogarde). During the Third Reich Max, a doctor at a Nazi concentration camp, forced Lucia, a prisoner, to become his mistress and sex slave. When years later Lucia arrives in the fancy hotel in Vienna, where Max now works as night porter, they resume their relationship.

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But does showing a despicable relationship make the film itself despicable? Can we understand the films ‘content’ (the story), without considering its form? Can we talk about what The Night Porter shows (and doesn’t show) without paying attention to how it is shown?

The film privileges Max's point of view, his perception of Lucia (then and now), his memories of the concentration camp. Perpetrator memories. Repulsive memories of forced sex, of perverse sexual fantasies. Memories that many former Nazis share. Hidden memories, secret fantasies of the past.

Memories are not a matter of fact. Memories are private, subjective, intertwined with wishful fantasies. Often wish and memory are indistinguishable. Consider for instance the fantasies, (erotic or otherwise) Nazi perpetrators never acted on, perhaps never even shared with anyone. When the Third Reich fell apart, the fantasies survived. It may have become more difficult to find a stage to perform them but they did not vanish without leaving a trace. There's no forgetting in the unconscious.

Memories are like dreams. They require a body; they are experienced by real people; they are inscribed in the mind of individuals, they must be worked through on a personal level. If we want to understand the satisfaction and enjoyment Germans and Austrians derived from being Nazis, every memory matters, every fantasy counts.

We may not want to see it, but for Max, the perpetrator, Auschwitz was and is a backdrop, a titillating setting, a turn-on.

Lucia’s/Rampling’s exquisite, if extreme, thinness -- almost unbearable to look at -- is less a “signifier of the real starvation actual prisoners suffered” (Scherr) than an indication that in the film’s reality (Max’s reality) she has no ‘content’, no story of her own. Lucia’s audible presence is as thin as her body. She remains silent for most of the film. Everything about Lucia suggests the presence of an absence. She is a ghost, a memory. Max’s memory.

That is why I don’t see “exploitation of memories” in The Night Porter. I see performance, re-staging and repetition. The Night Porter does not ‘deal’ with the memory of the Holocaust. It is less a film about memory than a film as memory.

To expect The Night Porter to offer a realistic and truthful image of suffering in a concentration camp is to misunderstand the film’s formal concerns: to re-enact a memory or a fantasy, to re-evoke the sexiness of camp life as remembered (and fantasized) by Max, the Nazi, the perpetrator.

The Night Porter makes me reconsider the neatly drawn boundaries between memory and fantasy. “False memory” is a misleading term. It suggests that memories ought to refer to facts, contain the trace of some indisputable, definitive truth. When I remember something that never happened,  from the point of view of a historian my memory may seem false, but it is a true memory nonetheless.

More often than not the perpetrator’s memories lie dormant: they are reviled before they are revealed. Since they must not be repeated, the crimes whose traces they preserve cannot be mourned. I wonder, how long can an individual, how long can a society, postpone grieving before memory becomes delusional, denying the difference between the dead and the living?

Art can help me understand how memory works but art cannot remember for me.

We live by night.
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Liliana Cavani, The Night Porter (Italy 1974, 118 min., color)
quotes: Marga Cottino-Jones, Marga. "'What Kind of Memory?: Liliana Cavani's Night Porter." Contention 5.1 (1995): 105- 111. Roger Ebert:
The Night Porter (review), in: The Chicago Sun-Times, February 10, 1975 Rebecca Scherr: The Uses of Memory and the Abuses of Fiction: Sexuality in Holocaust Fiction and Memoir, in: Other Voices, v.2, n.1 (February 2000). Nora Sayr: Review in: The New York Times, October 2, 1974.
Susan Sontag, Fascinating Fascism, in: Under the Sign of Saturn, 1981.