The Piano Teacher – rated – HOT! HOT! HOT!

This is such a hard film to watch, and yet it is almost impossible to take your eyes off the screen – such is the power of Isabel Huppert’s performance.  I understand that the Director, Michael Haneke (Funny Games, 1997, Benny’s Video 1992), waited for years to make this film – until Huppert was free to play Erika Kuhut for him.  It seems it was worth the wait.

It is interesting, too, that I saw this film in the same week as I saw The Conversation (Coppola, 1974).  Both films are about alienation of an individual from society, and yet they were made 27 years apart.

Haneke is very interested in the effect of certain aspects of modern society (notably television) on people (notably young people).  He makes this theme obvious from the start.  As the film opens, the titles are accompanied by beautiful classical music.  But lest we get too comfortable, the music stops for each credit line.  “Pay attention,” he seems to be saying, “this is not an entertainment”.

Like Harry Caul in The Conversation, Erika Kohut (Huppert) wears a raincoat to protect her.  She also wears gloves.  (She even leaves her gloves on when panty-sniffing in the Cabine!).  Like Harry Caul, Erika does not speak to people on stairs. She shuts the man out of the lift and he is forced to walk up the stairs, where they arrive at the same door.

She shuts people out mentally, too.  She is devastating in the way she puts people down and turns them off.  Like Harry, she expresses
She expresses emotion through a musical instrument, not her body (in her case, via the piano.  In Erika’s case, this isolation has led to a kind of madness (and her father died mad in an asylum).  There is a long association with genius and madness, and this is a strong theme in Haneke’s film, as references to “the twilight of the mind” -Schumann as written by Adorno – with Schumann being aware of his losing his mind, and being tormented by that very awareness.

There’s something cultural about Schumann, which I don’t understand.  And there’s something in his lyrics about being cut off from the others in the human race. No doubt Schumann has a lot to say about alienation.  His "Winterreise" recurs throughout the film, and some of its lyrics which I picked up hint at and cold and dark forces which make the singer always alone.

There’s also a long cultural association between genius and cruelty (particularly in music – I’m thinking of the recent book by Drusilla Modjeska, Stravinsky’s Lunch).  When Erika breaks glass & puts it where it will hurt someone, in one of the cruellest actions I have ever seen on film (though beautifully realised), I was reminded of a scene in Facing the Music (Bob Connelly/Robin Anderson 2001).  That was a doco screened at the 2001 Sydney Film Festival (see the review in that section of this website).  In that film there is a scene where the music Department Head deliberately humiliates a young pianist/ composer.  It was brutal, and it made me think she was taking out her own frustrations on this young woman.  It was an absolute abuse of power, and could have devastating results – just as Erika’s actions do.  Has Erika created another in her own image?  We never find out.  Indeed, the last thing Haneke would do would be to give us easy answers.

But I do think that Haneke is telling us about the danger of the influence of the older over the young.  At one point, Erika’s mother says to her: “No one must surpass you”.  Erika’s mother is the very essence of passive aggression.  At one point Erika’s mother says: “You need all your energy for tomorrow even if you are just a stand in.”  Only those we love know how to inflict the most pain.

Erika’s mother completely controls Erika, and in her turn, Erika wants to control Walter Klemmer, bring him to the brink and then watch him suffer.  Thus the sins of the mothers are visited on their daughters.  Finally, and horrifically, Erika makes her mother stand in for Walter. To her mother she says, “I love you”.  But she means Walter, and yet she can’t respond properly to him.

This is a very austere film, in more ways than one.  Most of the film is cold, and grey or beige.  Erica normally wears grey or beige.  But there is an incredibly beautiful scene when Erika is looking out a window during her lunch break – just before Walter interrupts her.  The composition is stunning, and the lighting is superb.  That scene alone is a work of art.  There’s also a beautiful and yet horrible scene where Walter forces Erika to behave “normally” and Erika is forced to run away from Walter – on ice.  Walter refers to her “seeking refuge on the ice” – a metaphor for her frozen emotions, perhaps.  But then again, he has become the violent one.  Erika’s violence is only directed towards herself (and, occasionally, her mother).

Of course, it is also a cruel film.  We see scenes of self-mutilation and humiliation that made me feel great pity.  But I kept wondering – what am I supposed to think of this?  And I think the answer is that I am not supposed to think anything in particular – I am just supposed to think.  Haneke specialises in getting under our skin and making us feel uncomfortable about things that we’ve never even questioned.

Some of the questions I am still asking myself are:  What is normal?  Does anyone have the right to force “normality” on anyone else?  Does reading or watching something make you do it?  Does it excuse you?  Does it make you more likely to do it?  Can you blame other people for your own failings?

At the end, Walter says, “You can't humiliate a man that way, ... you know love isn't everything.”  Perhaps Haneke is reminding us that human dignity still has some value.

© Michèle M Asprey 2002

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