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
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
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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