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Still from The Night Porter, Charlotte Rampling
Image: Lotar Film/Istituto Luce Cinecittà

Charlotte Rampling's taboo-breaking roles

Elizabeth Grenier
February 13, 2019

As Charlotte Rampling receives an Honorary Golden Bear at the Berlinale, here's a closer look at the British actress known for "The Look" — and for starring in a film depicting a sadomasochistic Nazi love relationship.


In a career spanning five decades, Charlotte Rampling has performed in more than 110 film and TV roles, working in English, French and Italian. Younger generations might recognize her from popular TV series such as Dexter, while fans of European cinema know she's won different lifetime achievement awards and acting accolades for her recent film roles including 45 Years (2015) and Hannah (2017).

The 73-year-old actress will be honored once more for her lifetime of work in cinema on February 14, this time with the Honorary Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Rampling has worked with top directors such as Woody Allen (Stardust Memories, 1980) and Lars von Trier (Melancholia, 2011), as well as served as François Ozon's muse in various works (Under the Sand, 2000; Swimming Pool, 2003; Angel, 2007).

Rampling's career has been largely defined by the sexual allure she radiates on screen, but she's faced controversy for her roles as well, and her international reputation as a daring actress was already established by the early 1970s.

Icon of the swinging '60s

As a young woman, Rampling found release from the discipline imposed by her father, an Olympic gold medalist and British army officer, in London's flourishing art scene. Modeling for photographer friends made her realize she was photogenic, and she decided to try out acting.

She appeared as an uncredited extra in Richard Lester's Beatles musical A Hard Day's Night (1964) and his 1965 film The Knack ...and How to Get It. A year later she got the role of a shallow and hedonistic woman in Silvio Narizzano's Georgy Girl, another film reflecting the sexual liberation of London's swinging '60s.

That same year, Rampling's sister, who was two years older, committed suicide at the age of 23. Charlotte's father insisted that she should never reveal the cause of her death to her instable mother.

Following the tragedy, Rampling was determined to dive into acting and tackle more challenging roles.

Establishing 'The Look'

She fulfilled her goal thanks to Italian master Luchino Visconti, who cast her in his 1969 historical drama, The Damned, also starring Dirk Bogarde.

The Oscar-nominated saga portrayed the rise of the Nazis through the story of the von Essenbecks, a family with a steel concern in the Ruhr Valley loosely inspired by the Krupps, a real-life German industrial dynasty.

Despite its soap opera allures, The Damned was a provocative epic featuring scenes of incest, pedophilia, homosexuality, murder, drug addiction and suicide. In Visconti's staging of the historical "Night of Long Knives," the Nazi Party's paramilitary men are shown having a gay orgy before being gunned down in the purge ordered by Hitler.

In the film, Rampling played one of the rare characters with relative moral decency: a mother who tries to escape the Gestapo with her children and who is sent to a Nazi concentration camp.

Charlotte Rampling in 'The Damned'
Charlotte Rampling in 'The Damned'Image: Warner Bros.

While the actress feared that she wasn't mature enough to portray a woman nearly 10 years older than she was at the time, Visconti was convinced she was ready for the part: "I can see it behind your eyes; you are any age."

Those mysterious, feline blue eyes, or "The Look," as her co-star Bogarde described them, became her trademark as an actress.

Read more: An intriguing gaze: Charlotte Rampling in 10 cult films

The Night Porter: Plunging into controversy

Other roles followed in the 1970s, but Rampling's most famous work of the decade reunited her with Bogarde in another World War II related story — but one of a completely different genre.

In Liliana Cavani's controversial erotic drama, The Night Porter (1974; title photo), Rampling portrays a Holocaust survivor who in 1957 happens to reencounter the former Nazi officer (Bogarde) who had raped her in a concentration camp while simultaneously offering her protection. The two of them resume their sadomasochistic "love" relations.

Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde in 'The Night Porter
Rampling and Bogarde in 'The Night Porter'Image: Lotar Film/Istituto Luce Cinecittà

The film is considered to be one of the earliest portrayals of Stockholm syndrome, a term which had been coined in 1973 to describe the physiological dependency a hostage develops with a captor. But the film scandalized many by combining sexual transgression and an ahistorical fictionalization of Nazism.

Cavani claimed that her work had been inspired by the testimony of a non-Jewish partisan woman who had survived the Dachau concentration camp, whom she had met while working on documentaries about the Third Reich in the 1960s. However, many critics quickly panned the thin "documentary" backdrop of the film, as it featured various historical inaccuracies and superficial depictions of Nazi characters. "The anguish of the prisoners in the camps is exploited simply for the sake of sensationalism," wrote The New York Times critic Nora Sayre, while her colleague Vincent Canby more directly dismissed the film as "a piece of junk."

Initially censored in Italy, the work nevertheless found prominent supporters who saluted it for breaking taboos.

Various film experts later labeled The Night Porter as the first film of the "Nazisploitation" genre that combines Nazis and sexual exploitation. Yet the film's arthouse aesthetics also contributed to its inclusion in video distributor Criterion's renowned collection of important films.

Provocative roles matter

Rampling experienced direct criticism as well. In the biographical documentary The Look (2011), Rampling recalls how The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael not only ripped the movie apart but also personally slammed the actress for having accepted the role.

Rampling arrives at Venice Film Festival and waves
Rampling has had a career spanning more than five decadesImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/ANSA/E. Ferrari

Rampling has said one of main reasons she agreed to work on The Night Porter was because she trusted Dirk Bogarde's judgment, even though she realized the script seemed very dangerous. "There was something so compelling about the subject that it was something that I couldn't not do," she explained.

Of course, she didn't expect such a film to trigger flowery reactions. "You learn to barricade yourself quite quickly," she said of the critics' blows.

The actress knew she would keep on doing controversial roles no matter what, she said in The Look. "If I couldn't make these kinds of roles, I knew I wouldn't go on with cinema, because the entertainment side of cinema didn't interest me that much."

Charlotte Rampling's Honorary Golden Bear award ceremony on February 14 will be followed by a screening of The Night Porter.

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