Dirk Bogarde plays Maximilian Theo Aldorfer, a former Nazi SS officer, and Charlotte Rampling plays Lucia Atherton, a concentration camp survivor who had an ambiguous relationship with Aldorfer. Flashbacks show Max tormenting Lucia, but also acting as her protector. In an iconic scene, Lucia sings a Marlene Dietrich song "Wenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte" 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 the other inmates, a reference toSalome.
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The film depicts the political continuity between wartime Nazism and post-war Europe and the psychological continuity of characters locked into compulsive repetition of the past. On another level it deals with the psychological condition known as Stockholm Syndrome. The movie also raises the issue of sleeper Nazi cells and their control, and possibly hints at what could have spurred the 1960s reaction to the Red Army Faction (aka Baader-Meinhof).
More basically, it explores two people in an uneasy yet inextricably bound relationship within the context of a greater political malaise during and after World War II. Lucia (Rampling) is not specifically identified as Jewish, possibly to depict the plight of all women. Her name may be a pun of "light" and St. Lucia, the patron saint of the blind. Max seems to have a guilt complex, given he's afraid of the light, and lives a modest lifestyle after the war. Allusions to sexual ambivalence can be seen in his relationship with the nearly naked male ballet dancer.
In responses to The Night Porter, Cavani was both celebrated for her courage in dealing with the theme of sexual transgression and, simultaneously, castigated for the controversial manner in which she presented that transgression: within the context of a Nazi Holocaust narrative. The film has been accused of mere sensationalism: film critic Roger Ebert calls it "as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering." Given the film's dark and disturbing themes and a somewhat ambiguous moral clarification at the end, The Night Porter has tended to divide audiences. It is, however, the film for which Cavani is best known.