Love can be the most frightening emotion, especially if you find someone who loves you because of your worst traits rather than despite them. The Night Porter is the story of a Nazi concentration camp guard and prisoner who fall in love.
The story begins in Vienna 1957. Max (Dirk Bogarde) is the night porter at a hotel, living a life of quiet obscurity, but seemingly content. He still has ties with his old Nazi allies, men in hiding who occasionally meet to discuss their past actions. Their conversations resemble a grim parody of group therapy sessions, in which the Nazis try to purge their own feelings of guilt (while at the same time plotting the murders of any witnesses who could turn them in to the authorities). It is noteworthy that even the other Nazis find Max's crimes to be especially hideous. Max is not portrayed as a man filled with regret for his past crimes, nor as a man filled with hope for the resurrection of the Third Reich. At the story's beginning, he seems to lack emotion entirely, content with his quiet life.
Into the story comes Lucia (Charlotte Rampling), wife of a composer staying at the hotel where Max works. She is also a former camp prisoner with whom Max had an affair. We see in flashbacks that this courtship involved rape, humiliation and exploitation. Max is at first afraid that Lucia will expose his terrible past to the authorities; while Lucia is overwhelmed by her buried memories. Both are surprised to find that they have feelings for one another besides fear or hate and they re-kindle their love affair.
Max and Lucia end up risking everything, including their lives, to keep one another safe from Max's Nazi allies (who want to silence them both). What at first appears to be a film about an abusive relationship slowly becomes a story about star-crossed lovers, whose love is challenged by forces far greater than themselves. Like all great love stories, there is an undercurrent of tragedy. The viewer is left to wonder if the greater tragedy would be splitting these two apart or keeping them together in a relationship that truly should not exist.