By Christopher Sharrett.
I count Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001) among his supreme masterpieces, along with Code Unknown (2000), Cache (2005), and The White Ribbon (2009). His “glaciation trilogy” (so named for its examination of the death of affect in the West, and the emotional freezing-over and fading of the humanist sensibility that once characterized Europe), especially The Seventh Continent (1989), is significant to Haneke’s worldview, but The Piano Teacher (the actual screen title is the far more appropriate La Pianiste; the title change in the US happened for reasons too complex and dull to discuss here), despite being an adaptation of a novel by Elfriede Jelinek and therefore not entirely Haneke’s work, fully announces him as perhaps the greatest living European director.
The film is a “breakthrough” for Haneke in many long-discussed ways: the awards at Cannes and elsewhere; the astounding performance by the always-enthralling Isabelle Huppert; its “legs” at the art house box office. Its central importance, however, is its utterly uncompromised and penetrating portrait of repression and its consequences, so much so it might be called the cinematic complement of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. It raises essential questions about the nature of the “perverse,” the social/sexual Other as a “sick” aberration to be scoffed at and spurned, and the nature of the family as institution undergirding and advancing repression, reaction, and the general social ills (often praised as virtues) that have deformed our society. Haneke provides an important counterpoint within his narrative: the great classical music of European culture that essentially makes up the score for the film. Were Bach, Schubert, Schumann, Schoenberg, and others created because of or despite the West’s deformity? Haneke delicately suggests the former.
Erika Kohut (Huppert) teaches piano at the Vienna Conservatory. The film’s setting in this fabled city is crucial; a place known for its anti-Semitism, its welcoming of the Anschluss, is also the home of much that makes us fully human, a cultural wellspring matched, I think, only by Florence. Erika fully embodies these contradictions; she is a skilled pianist with a love of Schubert, especially his Winterreisse, the most devastating song cycle ever composed about human alienation. But she is also a tyrannical, often brutally cruel teacher. More important, she is a repressed child in her late forties, still living with an overbearing, widowed mother (the legendary Annie Giradot) who keeps tabs on Erika’s every waking moment. The situation is common, and one might take it for granted as a sad but ordinary aspect of life: the “old maid” schoolteacher who lives with her mother. But the situation is revealed as monstrous. The mother, a widow, turns her child into a spouse (they share the same bed – there is a scene of near-incest late in the film, as things fall apart), who fills emotional needs while the child is turned into a target for the wife/mother’s rage at the damage caused her by heterosexual monogamous marriage under patriarchy. Erika’s days are policed down to the minute, the mother becoming enraged if her daughter is a few minutes late returning from her job. The horror soon looks quotidian. As her emotional compensation, Erika seems to be a compulsive shopper, bringing home dresses that the mother deems “too expensive” and rips to shreds.
The notion of the domineering widowed or emotionally abandoned mother became a theme in the postwar cinema: Psycho (1960) is the obvious locus, but it appeared in interesting but lesser works like Pressure Point (1962). One could argue, in Hitchcock’s case at least, that there is a distinct form of misogyny present here, but it becomes general and glaring, and in new forms, with Reagan-era films like Ordinary People (1980) or The Great Santini (1979) where the mother is a boob, a monster, or regressive enough to validate the tyrannical father (as Andrew Britton noted, the nadir of this trend is the Star Wars cycle, where the monster father, constructed as a genocidal ultra-Nazi, is revealed as a loving old man once you take off the hard carapace – I might add that the trend is very much with us, with Whiplash  showing that the tyrant father/teacher is good for you, and education-as-punishment wholly acceptable and finally benign).
But The Piano Teacher, far more than Psycho (whose sense of the deformation caused by the father and family is certainly present, if sketchy), insists on the presence of the absent father, and his constant reincarnations. The mother reminds Erika that the father died in a mental institution, imposing a sins-of-the-father anxiety, anchored in a disease that can’t be avoided. Erika’s identity is entwined with insanity, telling a student that she admires Schubert and Schumann, two composers noted for their terrible deaths from syphilis, Schumann in a madhouse. Erika internalizes the neurosis imposed on her by the mother, as the mother visits on her daughter the madness of the lost husband – but was he really mad, or is the mother too full of rage caused the father’s irrational but standard awfulness, or is the talk of madness a rationale for oppression of the child?
The father’s presence is manifest everywhere, including her white, spartan studio, where portraits of heroes of the classical music past glare at her as she espouses their virtues – that can be denied at one’s peril. Erika’s entire story, her “sickness,” flows from patriarchal notions of the right and proper family order.
Erika’s damage is manifest in her sexual deformation, rendered by Haneke in matter-of-fact rather than Gothic visual strategies, although this material should be the subject of a conscientious horror film. Erika engages in cutting herself with a razor blade, focusing on her genitals, the predictable form of having some control over one’s life while furthering the mother’s punishment via self-punishment, thinking that the cruelty is deserved. Erika goes to a porno shop in a downtown mall to watch sex videos in a coin-operated booth. The moment is especially crucial; she picks up discarded tissues dropped by male customers, sniffing them. The instant of alienation is profound, as Erika becomes a case study of the fetishist so alienated that the fetish is the only prospect of human contact.
The porno moment is superbly mounted, illustrating the contradictions of Vienna itself in the current moment. Erika was practicing Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-flat major before she goes to the mall (aggravating her colleagues by not staying at their tempo). As she leaves the conservatory, the music accompanies her non-diegetically. She walks through the glitzy mall, whose fake gold interiors correspond, more or less, with the conservatory doors (that the porno shop is in a fairly high-end mall seems odd, since, in the U.S. at least, such shops are confined to the gloomier, off-the-beaten-path parts of the city – as Haneke says, this may merely suggest a less puritanical attitude toward material deemed the devil’s agent in America, or perhaps the full commodification of sex in a civilization no part of which escapes capital for all its poses of sophistication?). The Trio keeps playing in Erika’s head (one assumes) until it quits with Erika’s entry into the booth. There is a second of quiet as she watches the grunts and groans of fucking on the video screen. We then hear “Im Dorfe,” the seventeenth song from Winterweisse, the Schubert masterpiece that recasts Romantic angoisse as hopeless agony of the soul.
Erika’s “redemption” seems to arrive with a Prince Charming figure who might be a Universal Man, Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel in the film’s other magnificent performance), as adept in science as he is at the keyboard. At a recital in the richly-appointed flat of Walter’s posh relatives (classical culture as the property of the rich, as a way of showing off wealth). Erika plays Bach at double piano with a male guest. Then Walter is invited to take a turn. He needs no music, removes the lamp, folds up the music stand as he sits down; clearly this is a man of confidence. As he plays, Haneke shows us Huppert’s face in close-up; through very subtle, entirely considered expressions, Erika shows her increasing sexual enthrallment with Walter. Her affection increases when Walter applies for tutelage under Erika at the conservatory. Although she feigns doubts about his talent in front of her colleagues, we know from her gestures that Erika’s fascination has increased by leaps.
As Erika’s romance unfolds, she is bedeviled by the presence of a homely young female student threatening to Erika at two levels: she shows talent at the keyboard that might surpass the teacher, and she may have the eye of Walter. To straighten matters out, Erika puts shards of glass in the girl’s coat, causing her to cut her hand, possibly ruining her career. When the girl’s panicked mother arrives, Erika feigns concern. We see the mother pushing her daughter forward with words that convey her own ambition rather than console her child. Erika’s situation with her mother is thus revealed as part of an eternal cycle.
The couple’s first erotic encounter is a very awkward bit of kissing and fellatio in the bathroom; Erika needs to dominate the moment, to Walter’s annoyance and eventual amusement, as he starts to see Erika as nuts (a less provocative moment from the scene was used for every poster advertising the film, sensibly so since what appears to be captured, after terrible struggle, is sexual utopia – it is anything but). Erika tells him to come to her apartment; when he does, Walter must make a barricade of a dresser to provide privacy from the intrusive mother. Erika gives him a multi-page letter describing her desire for sadistic sex; the violence described is such that one must assume she wants to be killed.
Walter, who through his time in the film up to this moment has embodied romantic love, is disgusted and doesn’t hesitate to say so to Erika. The enlightened scientist/artist is now less than the barroom petit bourgeois, whose viciousness accelerates as Erika tries to “win him over,” turning passive and masochistic. One can’t help at this point to see pathology as integral to romance, with each person playing a role that they see appropriate to win the desired person, even if the role is damaging to the self (“performativity” becomes basic to sexual interchange).
Rather than discuss rationally the contents of Erika’s letter, Walter dismisses her with contempt. Erika stalks him out of desperation, her severe persona utterly shattered when the male has a look at her true psyche. She finds him at a hockey rink where he is practicing with his bully-boy pals (who have just displaced two young female skaters, a gentle art shoved aside to make room for one of the most brutal “sports”). When Erika reclines on her back, telling Walter she will do whatever he says to please him, he forces her into fellatio that is simply rape, making her gag and vomit. Walter scoffs at her pleas; after she washes her mouth, he assures her she will always “stink.” Erika rushes out of the locker room onto the rink, where she is framed by the white of the ice – it is the most horrific Winterreise imaginable.
The Erika-Walter relationship culminates in a rape and near-murder that many see as too predictable, too unnuanced, as Walter is revealed as another male monster driven by hormones, caring not a whit for the woman. The moment becomes a commonplace in our current time when Walter says “part of it is [your] fault,” the woman the cause of her own destruction. But how could it be otherwise? The plot could have taken any number of directions, but Haneke remarks that he deals with “the world that [I] know.” As Erika leaves the impervious façade of the Vienna Conservatory, after a suicide attempt that may be a plea for help, she vanishes. That the female is erased may seem an especially brutal denouement, but it is a courageous and needed gesture, as women in the Western world (I won’t pretend to know their plight everywhere, but I can make fair guesses) face major challenges once again – in the U.S., their right to abortion and have birth control, even their right to “equal pay for equal work” (a common sense idea one would think long settled), face attacks from the male political class and the women who accept their rhetoric. By centering his drama in Vienna, a site of historical horrors that also prides itself for some of the greatest achievements of the West, Haneke’s extraordinary dismissal of patriarchal civilization seems absolute and complete.
All of Michael Haneke’s films deserve Blu-ray editions. There are several on Region 2 labels, but The Piano Teacher is the first in a Region 1 edition, courtesy of this country’s prestigious savior of cinema, Criterion. It is a pleasure to see the gradations of red in the conservatory and Erika’s apartment, and the colorful tawdriness of the porno shop so finely detailed. The sound has been restored to highlight accurately Haneke’s sound mix, with its resplendent use of the classics. The disc supplements include new interviews with Haneke and Huppert and select-scene commentary with Huppert. Perhaps most interesting is fairly lengthy footage showing Haneke and Huppert working together on the post-production soundtrack. I would have liked to have seen an interview with Elfriede Jelinek, whose novel always struck me as too acid, and unfriendly to its major characters, in contrast to Haneke’s adaptation.
Christopher Sharrett is a Contributing Editor for Film International. He has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University.