Saturday, March 21, 2009
THE NIGHT PORTER PLUS DIRK BOGARDE - POSTER BOY FOR DECADENCE
THE NIGHT PORTER is a film that starts out with a large handicap….Any description of its subject matter (which is about as politically incorrect as one can get) is bound to turn off a good portion of its potential audience.
Set in Vienna in 1957, THE NIGHT PORTER(made in 1974) is about a Nazi war criminal (masterfully played by Dirk Bogarde) who works as the night desk clerk in a hotel….He is aided and abetted by other Nazi war criminals who form a secret network to protect former Nazis….The main event of this process is what they call “a trial”….This is done not to seek justice but to erase each Nazi’s evil history….It involves the burning of all evidence (photos etc.) connecting them to past crimes, the murder of any witnesses and/or victims who can identify them, and a full confession of all they did….This last condition is key….The purpose here is to both cleanse the Nazi of guilt and make a clean break of the past as well as making sure there are no loose ends….After that, he can disappear into a new life.
As Bogarde’s character prepares for his “trial”, he encounters as a guest in his hotel, a woman(played by the eternally beautiful Charlotte Rampling) whom he sexually tormented and engaged in a perverse relationship with when she was a 15 year old prisoner at the concentration camp where he worked….Now, she is the cold and icy wife of a famous conductor….After some back and forth, the two once again resume their sick relationship which grows to include chains and broken glass….This in turn angers his Nazi cohorts who fear their coupling up could bring on the unwanted attention of the authorities
I should mention at this point that despite the overt decadence and sex in this film, aside from some nudity, it is not especially gratuitous….Rather, it focuses on the psychological make-up of both Bogarde and Rampling’s characters and how their pathology brings about their undoing.
For, as is noted by his Nazi brethren, Bogarde was really a minor player, a junior official who pretended to be a doctor in order to fulfill his sick needs (which included an interest in photography)….This is exactly the type of person Nazism attracted and encouraged which is a theme often explored in other European films about fascism such as THE DAMNED (which also stars Bogarde), 1900, and 120 DAYS OF SODOM.
Rampling’s character has already been murdered….This occurred the first time she was abused in the concentration camp (which interestingly enough is never shown) and her innocence was stolen from her….Conditioned at this young age, she can now only relate to the perversity she has a chance to experience again and is not a complete person.
They both fill an unhealthy need in each other….The fact that at the end they both dress up in the outfits they were wearing the first time they met is telling….A deeply thought out character study with a strong statement not necessarily on history or politics but on the convoluted pathways of the human mind….The flashback scenes to the concentration camp days are impressively shot….Filled with black and red, they are almost like a vision of Hell itself….Bogarde’s character in the present is pale and thin (he looks like Bryan Ferry’s slightly less-coiffed, more haggard older brother)….However, in the past he is red cheeked, heavily made up and puffed out like the devil himself.
A unique, unforgettable film but not for everybody….
While Charlotte Rampling was never better than in this film, the key here is Dirk Bogarde….He started his career as a British pin-up teen idol making the usual teenybopper trash as well as war pictures(he himself was a decorated war hero who had a number of hair-raising combat experiences in WWII which he later wrote about)….However, something happened starting with the eerie and unnerving 1963 film THE SERVANT and continuing on until his retirement to write a string of witty, fascinating books on his life in acting and other topics.
Basically, Bogarde at that point went on a run of critically acclaimed often surreal, often extremely arty films made in Europe….In fact, aside from the all-star war picture A BRIDGE TOO FAR, it is one of the most anti-Hollywood careers I’ve ever seen.
In many of them, Dirk Bogarde was the anti-method actor….Rather than physically changing himself to suit the role, the roles were tailored to suit Bogarde and specifically to suit the aging process which showed real life on Bogarde’s face.
What I mean by that ( and I am not attacking Bogarde personally here as I know nothing about his personal life other then he was rumored to be gay) is that Bogarde, while handsome in a pretty, European way started to look more and more like Dorian Gray’s painting….Many of his roles have him as the tired victim of decadence….Even in films where he was meant to be somewhat villainous, his usually brilliant performance enhanced by the worn beauty of his appearance gave even the worst characters he played different sides that the audience could relate to.
It has been said that by the age of forty, you have the face you deserve....Well all I know is that Dirk Bogarde had a perfect look and it suited the films he did (It is of course true he was given very good material to work with)….Very few other actors are so lucky or cursed.