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Charlotte Rampling The Night Porter
Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter (1974)

Nazi Chic: the stylistic legacy of The Night Porter

From Siouxsie Sioux to Marilyn Manson and Marc Jacobs, we trace the sub- and pop-cultural influence of one of the world’s most controversial films

The Night Porter is one of the most provocative films of all time, with an influence that can be traced throughout fashion and popular culture. Set to be screened tomorrow as part of the Barbican’s wickedly brilliant Cheap Thrills: Trash, Movies and the Art of Transgression season (also featuring cinematic delights such as Female Trouble and Boogie Nights), its tale of sadomasochism in and out of the concentration camp is arguably as controversial today as it was in 1974. Depending on who you ask, Liliana Cavani’s film is either a heartbreaking depiction of a taboo yet devoted relationship, or a deplorable attempt to eroticise one of the most awful events in human history. Perhaps the best answer is that it’s both.

While the story of ex-captive Lucia’s love for the Nazi guard (played by Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde, respectively) who made her his “little girl” when she was imprisoned is infamous for its theme, Cavani was not unique in sexualising the SS. As far back as the mid-1940s, but more prominently in the 60s and 70s, European directors had turned to the neat black uniforms of the Third Reich to give a stylistic, politically questionable edge to new genre of sexually-explicit exploitation films, dubbed Nazisploitation. “Why the SS?” questioned Susan Sontag of our sexual fascination with fascism, writing for the New York Review of Books in 1975. Well, it wasn’t only about power dynamics, but about how that power manifested – in sharp outfits, stiff leather boots and peaked caps. “The SS was designed as an elite military community that would be not only supremely violent but also supremely beautiful,” she surmised.

In other words, style, along with the associations of extreme power and pain which hold an appeal for sadomasochists, was key to the cinematic genre at large and to the cult success of The Night Porter. After all, its clothing that has given the film its most famous image – that of a topless Rampling singing for the guards in the camp, long gloves on her arms, her bare breasts covered with braces, the cap of an SS guard perched on her head. In the years since 1974, the reference point has been mirrored by everyone from subcultural pioneers to pop icons and top designers. Read on to trace its legacy.


For punks, appropriating the iconography of Nazism was motivated not by any right wing sentiment but by a desire to outrage and rebel against the establishment, shunning the accepted in favour of symbols that shocked. Vivienne Westwood, Sid Vicious, Jordan and Siouxsie Sioux were all pictured wearing swastikas around the height of punk in the late 70s. With its morally questionable subject, dark sexuality and the outrage it provoked, The Night Porter presented an inspiring scene: most directly referenced in a 1982 image of the now-goth Sioux by Anton Corbijn. In a 2002 interview with Tim Blanks, she reflected on the film and her use of other controversial symbols. “Swastikas, crucifixes, Stars of David, S&M... I think I’ve always been very attracted to very strong imagery anyway, whether it’s religious or cinematic or pop cultural....I think at that time there was also still a certain naïveté. I remember in films like Salon Kitty and The Night Porter, you were more aware of the imagery than the political and social implications.”


When it comes to goth’s legacy across the pond, one man can be pointed to for inspiring legions of the subculture’s most devoted followers. New York native Fred H. Berger began Propaganda magazine as a hardcore zine in 1982, before morphing it into a bible for disaffected youth. Shooting much of the mag’s imagery himself, which heavily referenced S&M and often featured waifish models hanging out in graveyards, Berger cited Cavani’s film as a key inspiration. “I’ve also been very influenced by The Night Porter… Stylistically and aesthetically, even romantically, it’s an intriguing film,” he recalled in a recent interview with Dazed. “Of course it was very controversial, it was and still is, but I found it very influential.” In Berger’s mind, standards back then of what was considered shocking were different. “The fashionable fascism element of Propaganda was not that unusual… Kiss, the heavy-metal band, have the SS symbol in their logo – and Gene Simmons is Israeli! So even Jewish hipsters and artists at the time were playing with that kind of imagery, which by today’s standards is considered politically incorrect and intolerable.”


While Rampling’s outfit has featured in music videos for both Madonna and Lady Gaga (it appeared in the former’s 1990 “Justify My Love” short and was worn by Gaga for her 2009 single “LoveGame”) it’s king of goth Marilyn Manson who has taken the look the furthest. Since his Holy Wood era (2000) he’d appeared in a shiny SS-style hat, and had performed wearing braces and elbow-length gloves, but the complete get up was most notably seen in his 2001 video for “The Fight Song”, a comment on contemporary America which juxtaposes Manson’s SS aesthetic with the phrase “We’re all happy to live in America”. For the ever-controversial Manson, Nazi Chic has dominated his post-millennial creative output – his fifth album The Golden Age Of Grotesque (2003) was created in conjunction with series of portraits by Gottfried Helnwein, featuring the musician in a white stylised uniform with patches worn by Nazi bandsmen on the collar. The accompanying Grotesk Burlesk tour saw Manson (in outfits by Jean Paul Gaultier) incorporate everything from the Death’s Head logo (complete with the Mickey Mouse ears Manson wore in some of the controversial blackface Helnwein images) a rally style set, and SS-officer back-up drummers who donned masks like those worn in Rampling’s famous scene.


Unsurprisingly, The Night Porter has found fans in fashion designers and editors, appearing as inspiration behind hundreds of covers and photoshoots. Perhaps most notably, Marc Jacobs looked to the film for his AW11 collection for Louis Vuitton, staged in a grand Hotel style setting complete with maids, bell-boys and ornate elevators, which transported models through the floor and to the runway. As for the clothes, there were leather gloves, bags handcuffed to wrists and stiff-brimmed caps topped with masks (including in shiny patent and the house’s iconic monogrammed canvas). Tom Ford has also made explicit reference to the film, stating that “almost every image of the actress Charlotte Rampling that has ever been captured are burned into my hard drive and have become part of my ethos of contemporary beauty.” And while Raf Simons’ SS17 collection was more of an ode to the fetishistic stylings of Robert Mapplethorpe, there was certainly something Rampling-esque about the hats worn by models. Indeed, Nazi Chic has been appropriated by gay S&M communities for decades, as detailed by Sontag back in 1975.

For tickets and more information on the Barbican’s Cheap Thrills season, head here.