The Piano Teacher: Bad Romances
Every masochist is a teacher in search of the right student. Which one can learn to hurt me the way I need? The sadist may appear to be in charge. But it is the masochist who knows and writes the script and will judge its performance. Therefore, if what you desire is to be dominated, you must develop good pedagogy.
The Piano Teacher understands this—and understands, too, that all teaching involves some version of these pleasures and these pains. The protagonist, Erika Kohut, gives lessons at a conservatory in Vienna. In the 1983 novel by the Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, she is “approaching the end of her thirties.” “Auch kein junger Baum mehr,” “no sapling anymore,” her mother cruelly reflects. In Michael Haneke’s 2001 film adaptation, she is played by Isabelle Huppert (then in her late forties).
Erika nearly had a career as a concert pianist but never made it. Her personal life, too, hangs in suspension. She rents a small apartment with her mother, who takes care of the cooking, cleaning, etc., as she always has. They rarely mention her father, who died in a mental institution. They constantly talk about buying a place of their own. At least, the mother constantly harangues Erika about saving up for one. Frugality is one of several forms of discipline that rule their lives.
Both novel and film depict a world that is highly hierarchical. Students wait hours for their brief auditions; when they fear they have played poorly, they sob. They rush to the door as soon as the list of admits to a master class is posted. The vanishing cultural significance of what they are doing only makes these rituals more desperate. Erika remains impassive. She is training those who will outlive her to outdo her. You cannot expect warmth on top of that.
The central drama of The Piano Teacher emerges when impassivity meets something else. In Haneke’s version, it starts with a door. Rather, with a shot of the inside of a door, which Erika opens as she returns home at the end of the day. Jelinek describes Erika “crashing in . . . like a whirlwind,” but Huppert controls her movements perfectly. She holds her rail-thin body ruler straight. She wears her hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, with no makeup, or none visible, on her freckled, almost translucent skin.
Huppert wears her own face like a mask. Throughout the film, she will register emotion with minimalist precision. Her performance is all eyes. When feelings escalate, she lets her look dart around the room. Its skittering conveys an almost animal panic, and animal need. In other scenes, the willed blankness of her stare, refusing cues and context, does the same.
Erika says she has been taking a walk after a full day of giving piano lessons; her mother (Annie Girardot) accuses her of lying. We never learn for sure. We will see some of Erika’s other clandestine excursions. She goes to the booths at a local sex shop to watch pornography, fishing semen-soaked tissues from previous visitors out of the wastebasket and holding them over her motionless face. She stalks the drive-in looking for couples having sex; when she finds one, moaning, she crouches and urinates next to their parked car. She shops for dress after dress that she never wears.
It is the shopping that the mother attacks her for. Shopping means wanting to attract male attention, which means sexuality that might take her from her art—and from her mother. Girardot speaks in a rasping voice that feigns casualness but never seems more than an inch from violent rage.
Jelinek tells us that the mother waited out twenty years of marriage before having Erika. She does not say what professional ambitions or other ambivalences may have driven her to delay. We can only imagine what she gave up that drives the crazed hopes she still harbors for her one child, which lead to their brutal fights.
The first scene ends with Erika tearing out fistfuls of her mother’s hair. Then they weep, embrace, and drink a late-night coffee. “Das verletzte Muttertier,” “the wounded mother-animal,” the mother sighs to herself. Although she writes in the third person, Jelinek alternates between the mother’s and the daughter’s perspective; the first often veers toward cliché. “Wer plant, gewinnt,” the mother says. “He who plans ahead will win.” “Gibt es von der Kunst niemals Urlaub.” “There’s no vacation from art.”
Haneke translates the banality of her diction into images within his images: the mother constantly sits in her living room watching television. Haneke implicitly defines his own work in contrast to these other poles: car and crime shows, as well as the pornography that Erika watches. This is the film’s love story, part one, then: motherhood as doomed affair. It is also the first pedagogy, a form of teaching that can never be requited, and love that aims to end up being overtaken. The violence that these women bring on each other is extreme yet everyday. “The child is the idol that a mother pays for with her life,” Jelinek writes. Though trite, it’s not untrue. Wounded animal: what mother isn’t?
Another door, another disruption: the second love story arrives by chance. Erika and her mother are walking into the apartment building where live the Klemmers, a wealthy Vienna family who have invited Erika to play in their living room for a well-dressed audience, including several of her students. As the two women cross the lobby, a young man, blond, ducks through the glass door behind them. Erika and the mother see but ignore him, pulling the elevator grate shut in his face. He smiles, cocks his head, hair falling over one eye. Then he races ahead up the stairs, so he can bow and hold the door open for them.
The young man turns out to be Walter Klemmer, the nephew of their hosts. Played by the young Benoît Magimel—twenty-six to Huppert’s forty-seven—Monsieur Klemmer is beautiful. He has a strong jawline and a Ken-doll cleft chin. But his chivalry is threatening. Is there an undertow of mockery in the compliments he keeps paying Erika? A violence flickers beneath the theater of his charm. It is a kind of violence that admirers will recognize from earlier Haneke films, where the cocky, clean-cut boy is always a figure of suspicion.
Like the husband in The Seventh Continent (1989), the murderous protagonist of Benny’s Video (1992), and the sadistic friends of Funny Games (1997), Monsieur Klemmer seems strangely motiveless, empty of affect. He pursues Erika as a teacher and a lover. In his music, as in his attempts at seduction, he is at once too virtuosic to be trusted and apparently sincere.
Their first encounter anticipates the formal strategies of the entire film. As Erika and her mother ascend in the rigid cage of the old elevator, haughtily pretending not to see him, this young man, joking not jokingly, races up, circling them. Throughout the film, Haneke’s longtime cinematographer Christian Berger uses mostly static shots. The doors that are shown opening and closing become a regular punctuation; the credit sequence, which cuts between overhead views of students’ hands playing the piano and silent white-on-black titles, echoes them. But in crucial moments, the camera comes unmoored. It tracks Erika through a crowded mall to the sex shop, for instance. When she lies on the floor of a sports equipment closet, to which she herself has tracked Walter, goes down on him, vomits, then begs him to do what he wants to her, the camera circles her sprawled body. It hangs over her, in the air. Erika has painted her lips bright red; she extends one arm toward us. It is a testimony to the rigor of Haneke’s and Berger’s filmmaking that camera movement can convey the charge of this moment’s eros and abandonment. This slight movement becomes longing and despair.
Erika finally tells Walter exactly what she wants. Ever the teacher, she shuts him in her room and makes him read her fantasies aloud from a long letter. The episode directly echoes the many scenes of her teaching other piano students.
The warm-blooded boy whom she wants to gag and choke her, whose favorite color she wants to wear, is first frustrated and then repulsed, and says so. Still, like any good teacher, she manages to get her fantasies into his head. The possession crazes him. In the end, Walter says she is the one who has driven him to their final, violent encounter. The scene leaves ambiguous who has hurt whom—whether what has happened is a disaster for Erika or a consummation. Haneke, who is as cold and cruel and expressionless as his favorite actress, would never tell us the answer.
Haneke has repeatedly, and notoriously, cited the climactic scene of The Piano Teacher as an emblem of his own aesthetic. By paring down his scripts and images, he aims “to rape the spectator into autonomy,” he says. He dismisses the pleasures of narrative and psychology as pornography and propaganda.
The cool austerity of his aesthetic is very different from the excess of Jelinek’s prose, propelled as the latter is by crazed streams of consciousness and self-contradiction. Consider how each of them depicts one of Erika’s erotic rituals: slitting her genitals with a razor blade that she keeps wrapped in tissue in her purse. Haneke shows us only Erika posed on the edge of the bathtub, then Erika, in a long shot, rinsing the tub. From afar, we glimpse the blood thinning in the water beneath the faucet. By contrast, in the novel, “the blade smiles like a bridegroom at a bride”; when Erika bleeds herself, the blood “runs and runs and runs and runs.” Consider also the difference between how Jelinek and Haneke describe the obsolescence of the classical music that Erika lives for. Jelinek compares this Viennese culture to “a bloated corpse that becomes more bloated every year as it sinks lower.” Haneke has Huppert cite Adorno, saying Schubert, and by extension all classical music, is in its “dusk” or “sunset” (“dans son crépuscule”).
Stylistically, Haneke takes less from Jelinek than from Chantal Akerman—like Erika, a lifelong mama’s girl. Akerman learned her own disciplined, punishing long takes in the experimental film scene of seventies New York where, perhaps not incidentally, she also briefly worked as a ticket taker at a porn theater. And in the regular, static shots of opening and closing doors in The Piano Teacher, we can detect the influence of Akerman’s 1982 experiment Toute une nuit.
Haneke never asks reasons why. Which means that, despite his attraction to Jelinek’s setup, he has little to say about her feminist psychologizing or interest in gender. The Piano Teacher by Haneke as an interpretation of The Piano Teacher by Jelinek folds in this self-reflection: he forces stern coldness on his source material. Adaptation is another bad romance.
To boast of raping a spectator into autonomy is to suggest that suffering violence may produce a form of freedom. Whether or not we buy this metaphorical slippage may have to do with whether our real lives let us treat rape as a metaphor. It also depends on how much we want our art to tell us about the politics of living with our desires and our differences.
The question of whether Haneke is himself more of a sadist or a masochist is difficult to answer. His films constantly, deliberately inflict unpleasure. Yet they are also intensely exacting upon themselves. What is clear is that Haneke is a pedagogue. The tone he takes in interviews almost always comes across as professorial. And there is an air of belatedness to him. Born in Munich in 1942, he is the contemporary of most of the New German Cinema directors whose work preceded his—three years older than Rainer Werner Fassbinder, for instance—and has none of their rambunctiousness. (By the time Haneke released his first feature, Fassbinder had been dead for seven years.) Having first aspired to be an actor or musician, Haneke studied philosophy and psychology at the University of Vienna. He spent several years working as a film critic and dramaturge before beginning to direct, and worked in television for nearly fiteen years before shooting his first feature.
The Seventh Continent was the first installment in Haneke’s Vergletscherungs-Trilogie, or Glaciation Trilogy—three films (the other two are Benny’s Video and 1994’s 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) that explore random acts of violence and the images through which those acts are mediated. They are full of images within images and other self-reflexive moments: a television that a family watches while committing suicide together; a home video of a murder that a boy commits in order to record it; fourth-wall-breaking, Brechtian looks directly into the camera. The message is clear: this is violence about violence, and about how the viewer complies with it, or even desires it.
The Piano Teacher was one of Haneke’s first films to depart from this model and was part of a transitional phase in his career, marked most obviously by his shift from the German to the French language. Since Code Unknown, his 2000 French-language debut starring Juliette Binoche, Haneke has gone back to German only once, for his 2009 Cannes winner, The White Ribbon. But the change was not only linguistic. Working with famous French actresses, Haneke began to draw larger festival audiences. And the films themselves started to depict a broader social world, alluding to European history and contemporary social crises.
The films that have followed The Piano Teacher have referred more and less directly to problems of postcolonialism and migration. In some, like Time of the Wolf (2003) and Caché (2005), these are the explicit focus. In others, like Amour (2012) and Happy End (2017), the fragility of the European Union stands in the background—in immigrant workers waiting to be paid; in refugees flooding the city of Calais. Using the same actors and even variations on the same characters again and again, Haneke inscribes these problems within the family, giving his corpus a quality that critics have called taxonomic: he examines the possibilities of contemporary (haute) bourgeois life in an increasingly volatile political reality. And the disaster is ongoing.
Yet The Piano Teacher mostly eschews historical and sociological questions. Instead, it stakes its claim on the continued vitality of an endangered European tradition—not classical music but the art cinema itself. Positing a masochistic spectator who wants to suffer through a film like this one, it makes a bid to turn us into teachers—or its transmitters. The paradox is that it works, and that this may mean accepting, as Erika muses in the novel, that “art is no consolation.”