Breaking the Ice: The Beginning of Desire in The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher is one of my favorite films, and a rare novelistic adaptation that doesn’t suffer from comparison with its source material. This is especially impressive given how good a source it has: Elfriede Jelinek’s 1983 novel Die klavierspielerin. (Isabelle Huppert is an unfair advantage; what Nobel laureate could compete?) The film is one of the most compelling accounts I know of a life undone by desire, and of the labyrinth one can be led into by mistaking one’s desire, by having been profoundly wrong about oneself and what one wants.

It’s a brutal film, but also an intimate and delicate one. Huppert plays Erika, a brilliant and severe artist and teacher who holds both her students and herself accountable to a punishing, ascetic standard, while longing for an erotic abandon she courts in unconventional, sometimes harrowing ways. Haneke alternates scenes of what we might consider extremity—Erika cutting herself in a bathtub, or masturbating in a video booth while inhaling the scent of soiled tissues, or pissing beside a car while a young couple has sex inside—with lingering scenes set in concert halls and rehearsal studios. The juxtaposition of refinement and rawness, discipline and release, culture and degradation, is the thematic and narrative engine of the film, which works finally—like Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, a book the film recalls—to dissolve these dichotomies.

Amid such moments, it’s easy to miss—certainly on a first viewing, and even on a fourth or a fifth—an unassuming, forty-five-second scene that’s ancillary, at best, to the film’s narrative.  And yet this interlude at an ice rink is a microcosm of the entire film, I think, and an essential moment in Erika’s development and the progression of her relationship with Walter, her brilliant young piano student who has just, in the scene before this, declared his desire for her. Disdainful, cruel, she dismisses him, and then follows him as he heads to hockey practice.

Part of Haneke’s greatness lies in the way his static shots invite contemplation of compositions that have the density of great paintings. The more you look, the more you find to see. Here the composition is starkly geometrical, a lattice of vertical and horizontal lines. The image is inelegantly, even brutally cropped, the screen divided into four unequal vertical panels, two of them opaque: dull metal that occupies a quarter of the screen, more or less, and obscures our view of the scene beyond.

Horizontally, the screen is divided into bands of light and dark: the white of the ice in the middle ground; the concrete border at the bottom of the screen and again in the background; the structure on the far side of the rink, with its beige walls and line of dark windows; the very narrow strip of white bordering the top of the screen. In the foreground on the left, there are four dark horizontal bars of a railing, a suggestion of restraint. In the background, the beige of the structure is interrupted by dozens of vertical interjections: the white muntins dividing the windows into alternating broad and narrow panes; the little teeth of what might be an awning on the right-hand side; beneath this, five white stools, their angled legs inverted Vs. Maybe if I spent more time at ice rinks I would recognize the objects arranged by the ice in the background to the left, making short, dark, not quite perfectly vertical lines. The blue of the structure’s four doors provides the scene’s only real color—and it’s so dark as barely to register as color. 

Amid all this harsh angularity, two women are skating at the center of the frame, little factories of curved lines. One spins languidly while the other prepares for a jump; she lands with perfect poise and then relaxes, letting her shoulders fall as the first woman swings into a camel spin. There’s something companionable about them, unhurried, unanxious; the rink is nearly empty, so if they skate in such proximity it can only be because they enjoy the company. The skaters face each other, mostly, and they don’t seem competitive: each seems to take pleasure in the other’s competence. They’re artists, like Erika, and like hers their art demands discipline and sacrifice. And yet they’re easy with one another in a way utterly foreign to Erika’s radical isolation. They don’t speak; only the white noise of the rink and the whisper of the skates interrupt the silence.

Seven men enter now, all of them in hockey uniforms. They charge the women, disrupting their elegant circles; then they swarm, weaving between them, destroying all the intimacy of the earlier moment. It’s a delicate allegory, but not a subtle one: the men are the antithesis of everything that characterized the women; grace is replaced by brutality, collaboration by aggression. The most disturbing element is the noise they make, striking the ice with their sticks repeatedly, menacingly, in a triplet rhythm. They’re claiming the space, declaring a masculine realm. The women regroup; one touches the arm of the other, as if to reassure her; they step off the ice sulking.

And then Walter comes into the frame, his helmet off so we can see his blond hair, a bit of radiance, a blessing. He stops to speak to the women, smiling and shaking his head a little; we can’t make out the words, but it’s easy to imagine him commiserating with them about the boorishness of men. The women touch each other again, differently now: they’re won over, charmed, they rush out of the frame giggling. It’s Walter’s puppyish gift, to smooth over conflict, to reconcile others to the irritations of existence. Walter’s tragedy in Haneke’s film is not just that this gift fails him with Erika, but that what she shows him, her manner of being, changes so profoundly his sense of the world that he will never again, one suspects, feel so at ease in it.

The perspective shifts, and we see the woman whose eyes have been our eyes, staring through the slats that have framed the scene. Isabelle Huppert’s performance has its dramatic moments, but mostly it’s a master class in how much can be conveyed through an almost imperturbable mask. Usually that mask dismisses any thought of a smile. Here she doesn’t smile, exactly, but she doesn’t exactly not smile, either: her face lifts in a way that suggests an uncomplicated pleasure. It may be as close to happiness as we see Erika come. It’s utterly devastating.