It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"The Night Porter" is as nasty as it is lubricious, a despicable attempt to titillate us by exploiting memories of persecution and suffering. It is (I know how obscene this sounds) Nazi chic. It's been taken seriously in some circles, mostly by critics agile enough to stand on their heads while describing 180-degree turns, in order to interpret trash as "really" meaningful.
That's not to say I object per se to the movie's subject matter, a sadomasochistic relationship taken up again 15 years after the war by a former SS concentration camp officer and the inmate he raped and dominated when she was a young girl. I can imagine a serious film on this theme -- on the psychological implications of shared guilt and the identification of the slave with the master -- but "The Night Porter" isn't such a film; it's such a superficial soap opera we'd laugh at it if it weren't so disquieting.
Fascism and its favorite sexual taste, sadomasochism, have come into a certain degree of fashion in the movies recently, and that's the subject of a scary essay by Susan Sontag in the last issue of The New York Review of Books. She finds films like "The Night Porter" to be, on one level at least, attractive to certain audiences because of their undertones of doom and death. That may be an aspect of the times or it may just be that such movies reach areas of the personality that weren't widely admitted before; she's not sure. But she's worried.
I am, too. For a long time I've defended the belief that what we see in the movies doesn't direct our behavior, if we're more or less normal; that there are infinitely greater influences all around us in society to explain deviant and violent behavior, and that the movies are just a convenient whipping boy. I still believe that, but I'm getting awfully weary of the violence I have to witness week after week as a critic.