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Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter

October 2001 | When it was released, Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (1974) was such a huge box office success that it inspired the so-called Nazi-porn genre, which included films like The Last Orgy of the Third Reich and Camp of Love (Liehm 259). But as acclaimed as the film was in Europe, "inept advertising" led to its resounding critical failure in America. Many critics derided the film as a pornographic combination of Deep Throat and Last Tango In Paris, and many feminists refused to even see the film, even though it was made by a woman (De Lauretis 35). Based on number of nude and sex scenes alone, The Night Porter hardly seems pornographic-- less than a third of the film displays explicit nudity or sex. To discover why this film was labeled as pornography in many circles and if it deserved this label, this essay will examine several definitions of pornography, test if The Night Porter fits any of these definitions, and analyze whether The Night Porter holds together as a meaningful film beyond the definition of pornography.

In his article "On Pornography," John Ellis puts forth three broad definitions of pornography from three broad-based groups in late 1970's London Ellis 83). The first is the conservative right wing. According to this group, pornography is a category of representations concerned with sex or violence without their social or moral context. These representations aim to titillate the viewer. They stimulate anti-social behavior, and are a symptom as well as a cause of a general decline in social values.

Like the conservative definition, the prevailing feminist definition of pornography includes depictions of violence and sex deprived of social significance. But as far as the roots of pornography are concerned, the feminist definition is broader, for it perceives pornography as a result of general antipathy between the sexes. Men are the subjects (audience) of pornography, while women are the objects of it. This perception sets up a wide range of material that may be considered pornographic, from television commercials to hard-core pornography in the usual sense.

The liberal approach to pornography classifies representations as pornographic according to their function (to arouse the audience sexually) and content (explicit representations of sexual material). The liberal definition maintains an aesthetic distance from the majority of these representations, and it makes a rigid separation between the realms of the public and private. There should be as little limitation on the private as possible, and should be legal in public as long as no strong evidence exists of a causal link between pornographic material and anti-social acts. The liberal definition, though, makes a great effort to refute the conservatives' link between pornography and particular acts of violence.

Does The Night Porter fit into any of these definitions? The narrative of The Night Porter is not your usual pornographic fare: fifteen-year-old Lucia(Charlotte Rampling) arrives at a concentration camp and soon enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with Max, her Nazi torturer (Dirk Bogarde). When the two meet fifteen years later in 1957-- Max is a night porter at a Vienna hotel, Lucia is the wife of a famous conductor staying at the hotel-- Lucia leaves her husband and resumes her relationship with her first lover. In the meantime, Max is part of an informal tribunal of ex-Nazis who put on false trials to absolve themselves of guilt and complicity. The tribunal pressures Max to give Lucia up so she can be "eliminated" as a witness. Max refuses, so the tribunal places him and Lucia under unofficial house arrest, where the lovers continue their affair. When Lucia and Max try to leave Max's apartment, they are shot.

Most definitions of pornography include the element of titillation-- through explicit images, pornography is meant to superficially excite the viewer. But with the clinical cinema vérité of its flashback sequences (where much of the film's sex and all of its nudity is conveyed), The Night Porter's sexuality is more grotesquely melancholic than titillating. The most grotesque of the film's sexual scenes is the cabaret flashback where Lucia dances topless for a group of Nazis. Max, who is narrating this flashback, constructs it as a "biblical" story-- he promises Lucia to transfer Johann, another prisoner that had been torturing her, if she would dance for him. Lucia performs to a Marlene Dietrich song, but instead of transferring the other prisoner, Max has Johann decapitated and presents Lucia with the head.

Of all of the scenes in The Night Porter, the cabaret scene is the one that borderlines the most on being pornographic. The pre-WWII Weimar cabarets were meant to be as titillating as they were sophisticated. In The Night Porter, the Nazi's parody on the cabaret shows men exhibiting behavior that the right wing and feminists warn against: they are exploiting a teenage girl in a way that is both anti-social and anti-civilization. In presenting Lucia with a man's head, Max is shown as even more depraved. Nevertheless, Cavani's treatment of the scene-- from Max's somber narration, to the bleak colors of the set, to the decapitated head is never shown in detail (edges of it are shown on the screen), and especially to Lucia's mutely horrified reaction-- makes it clear that while Cavani sympathizes with Max, she does not sanction this action. But Cavani includes this scene in the film, not to be titillating or exploitive, but to show the extent of the sexual dysfunction that took place in the concentration camps. Both Max and Lucia were forced to participate in this dysfunction.

With its serious treatment of a potentially titillating scenario, the cabaret scene gives a clue as to why The Night Porter was labeled as pornography. The concept of pornography is commonly tied to the concept of obscenity-- that which is lewd or morally indecent. Looking at the film's central sadomasochistic relationship in the setting of the Holocaust, even The Night Porter's most liberal proponents admit that the film's subject matter is doubly obscene. With this in mind, I expected a level of matching polemics in the film's treatment of obscene material. I was surprised to watch the film and find that Cavani spends as much time placing Max and Lucia in a social and moral context-- that of the hotel, the tribunal, the city of Vienna-- as she does on the lovers' relationship. I was later surprised to read one New York Times critic Vincent Canby's response to the film, which said that "Miss Cavani is less interested in the banality of evil or its psychology than in what she tries to picture as the eroticism of it" (Pullicino). For me, the film is so tied to its social setting that it turned out to be more of a complex meditation on power than a simplistic eroticization of the concentration camps (Michalczyk 101).

Ellis's "On Pornography" and Lesley Stern's "The Body as Evidence" both put forth the idea for a new conceptualization of the sexual cinema. Ellis suggests that filmmakers need to look beyond fetishism into the actual nature of sexual passion (Ellis 100). Stern suggests that female fantasy needs to be explored as an alternative to male fantasy (Stern 59). Both argue that fantasy, in being repetitive and pleasurable if not always completely satisfactory, has something to say about the elusive nature of desire. We fetishize because we are unfulfilled, and cinema, in showing the condition of desire rather than the nature of it-- how it works rather than why it works-- perpetuates fetishism, particularly male fetishism of the female.

On the level of explicit representation, The Night Porter is not as sexual as Deep Throat or even Last Tango in Paris. Nevertheless, it advances the maturation of the sexual cinema by examining the nature of desire in both a feminist and a larger social context. At its broadest societal level, The Night Porter examines sexual fantasy in a totalitarian system. In a political system where the strong treat the weak as slaves and objects, fetishism is much more likely. Women like Lucia are fetishized, but when Lucia and other prisoners watch a fellow prisoner tortured by sodomy, Cavani makes it clear that men are nearly as vulnerable to fetishism.

Though Max fetishizes Lucia (particularly in the cabaret scene), Cavani takes care not to fetishize Max or Lucia. Her approach to both characters is extremely subjective, but it is still a dialectic-- Max and Lucia's relationship is made to be an understandable outcome of an illogical, monstrous system. Their affair is an unsparing metaphor on the condition between men and women (De Lauretis 37). On the surface, one figure is an oppressor while the other figure is a victim, but on deeper levels, both are victims and oppressors who alternately propagate and fight against a cycle of cruelty and guilt.

Part of how Cavani carries out her subjective, non-objectifying treatment of Max and Lucia is to place them both in a space generally reserved for women: the domestic interior, where both willingly surrender their power. Setting rather than character is where Cavani's subjective voice often emerges the most. In an interview with Claire Clouzot, Cavani remarks:

Beginning with The Night Porter, the true facts, and the actors within the scenes, are not a reality. My point of view is beyond time, beyond realism. The atmosphere of a place, a room, a road is transformed. My desire is to interpret them into a space of fantasy. They are mood provoking. In order to achieve this, I break the rules of cinematography; for example, I place lights to imply windows where there are none. This strategy evokes places beyond phenomenological reality, which make up my own reality, as dreams (Marrone 82-83).

Privileging the interior space over the exterior space and putting her protagonists into this space, Cavani puts her characters-- particularly the male character of Max-- into a "subject-position that is more classically ‘masculine' than feminine" (Silverman 119). This is an unusual way of making a feminist statement, for it does not take the usual approach of feminist resistance to male oppression. Lucia is oppressed by Max, but Max is also in a submissive position, for in sequestering Lucia and himself in his small apartment, he renounces the power that the informal Nazi tribune is on the verge of giving him.

The submissive positions of both Lucia and Max reflect a theme that is prevalent through much of Cavani's work: the symbiosis between good and evil (Marrone 84). To Cavani, evil prevails over virtue to the point that it subsumes it-- in each person, there is no separation between good and evil, there is only separation between right and wrong. Cavani formed this perspective from her work as a documentary filmmaker. In 1965, when she was commissioned to make a documentary on women in the resistance, Cavani interviewed a Holocaust survivor: "She could not forgive the Nazis for making her aware of people's capacity for evil. But she gave me no details; she only told me not to expect a victim to be always innocent because a victim too is a person" (Liehm 263). This does not mean that victims are as evil as their oppressors or that oppressors are free from guilt, but Cavani's perspective invites are more wide- reaching examination of the systematic effects of oppression on both women and men.

The Night Porter is commonly compared to Last Tango in Paris, and De Lauretis argues that the film's non-objectifying treatment of Max and Lucia make it a feminist counterpoint to Tango's treatment of Paul as a tortured man and Jeanne as the exotic Other (De Lauretis 38). Neither viewpoint is more valid than the other since both exist, though it could be argued that Bertolucci's viewpoint was easier for critics to digest since for both men and women, it is more commonly held, examined, and exposed. Nonetheless, all artists have the right to create material that advances the narrative of her work, whether they are producing a masterpiece of art of a simplistic piece of sexual titillation. Ellis makes the point that many of the filmmakers in the pornography industry are somewhat mute on this subject; instead, pornography's most vocal defendants are liberals that argue for artists' rights.

As much as I am a proponent of artist's rights, I do not think that free rights always perpetuates valuable art-- the nature of the capitalistic marketplace frequently inhibits the diverse exposure that free rights may allow. As the musicologist William Osborne said, "Interest in the arts doesn't just happen on its own. It requires an effort, a level of intelligence, commitment, and human dignity that societies must cultivate" (Osborne). In fact, I think Ellis's point implies that many pornographic filmmakers are first and foremost of the marketplace-- since their films are often manufactured products, very little thought is given to "advancing the narrative," or at least a narrative that is repetitive and derivative.

Many liberals, feminists, and critics missed a great opportunity with The Night Porter, for it takes an insightful, fresh approach to a highly original narrative that is all the more important for its polemicsm. There was no doubt that The Night Porter would offend many in the right wing, but perhaps part of the reason why the film was deemed offensive to the left wing is that it takes an unsparing, look at Nazism and its impact on men and women. In order for societies to learn from its mistakes, this kind of rigor is necessary. Cavani takes this approach that is at once deeply unromantic, deeply humane, and-- surprisingly-- deeply feminine.

Works Cited

De Lauretis, Teresa. "Cavani's Night Porter: A Woman's Film?" in Film Quarterly, 30:2, Winter 1976/77, pp 35-38.

Ellis, John. "On Pornography." in Screen, 21:1, Spring 1980, pp 81-108.

Liehm, Mira. Passsion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Marrone, Gaetana. The Gaze and Labyrinth: The Cinema of Liliana Cavani. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Michalczyk, John. The Italian Political Filmmakers. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1986.

Osborne, William. Personal e-mail to the International Alliance of Women In Music. 5 September 2001.

Pullicino, Paul. "Lena Wertmuller and Liliana Cavani: Knee-jerk Anger and Slow Understanding for the Black Sheep of Italian Feminist Film. (Italian contemporary women film-makers 1973-1976)." Part of Personal Homepage. 19 October 2001.

Silverman, Kaja. The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Stern, Lesley. "The Body As Evidence." in Screen, 23:5, November/December 1982, pp. 39-60.

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