Shortly after I moved into my Rochester apartment, I took pictures of it that I shared with friends. One told me they reminded him of The Night Porter, not so much because my apartment looks like anything in the movie, but because of the way it feels. His observation was apt, given that I have often referred to Rochester as “my Vienna,” the city in which The Night Porter is set. How do you explain such intangible impressions? All I can say is that while I have expressed reservations about The Night Porter elsewhere, the film exerts an undeniable fascination for me as it negotiates the vistas, boulevards and crumbling alleys of imperial twilight.
Indeed, Vienna is the real star of The Night Porter, but it is not the city of Strauss waltzes, cozy Biedermeier evenings, ancien regime elegance, fin-de-siècle neurasthenia, nor even of the bleak, post-war decay and corruption seen in The Third Man. Rather, in The Night Porter, Vienna trades on its past with a faded facade. Things are just good enough for people to fool themselves into thinking they are back to “normal.” But it is a normality achieved only by sweeping the recent past under the carpet.
Set in 1957, the film’s recent past includes the horrors of Nazism, but to express the situation that way is to fall into the same trap of willful forgetting of the Viennese themselves. After all, Hitler was originally an Austrian and he entered Vienna after the 1938 Anschluss to cheering, enthusiastic crowds. The horrors, in other words, were implicit in the population’s rush to return to a past glory. It is the contrast between that reality and the myth of gemütlich Vienna that creates the sub-surface tensions in The Night Porter.
That the film’s fairly ridiculous story centers on a group of Nazis is in this sense completely appropriate. Austria’s Nazi past is the thing that cannot be ignored even as it is rarely addressed. The sadomasochistic love story between former SS officer Max (Dirk Bogarde) and concentration camp survivor Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) is practically a synecdoche for the country’s tortured attempts to know and not know about its complicity in its own subjugation, its cooperation selectively remembered as victimization. The difference being, however, that Max and Lucia cannot hide from themselves, and as they try to resurrect their past, they assure only their destruction. Vienna, on the other hand, can retreat behind a mask of charming denial.
Like many tourist cities, Vienna beckons with the allure of what once was, with surfaces more enduring than the substance and purpose that have dried up and blown away. The Night Porter too is an empty husk, dressed up by formal flourishes, of which Rampling’s concentration camp drag number is the most famous. The film has nothing to say about Nazism, but in that silence it accidentally becomes eloquent testimony to the power of style to seduce and corrupt.