The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001) is a considered exercise in empathy. It reflects upon the complex ways in which behaviours and roles can be repeated and adapted by individuals, within and without traditional boundaries. Boiled down here is a symbiotic spiral of action and repression perpetuated by social norms and expectations. This film presents a compelling slice of life whilst interrogating with extraordinary discipline the formal predicates which encase both the film and its protagonist.

Erica Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), the title character of the film (which is based on an autobiographical novel by Elfride Jelinek), is a 40-year-old professor at a Viennese music academy. She is dour and dowdy and terrorises her students. The apartment Erika shares with her mother (Annie Giradot) is a kind of mini-necropolis where they sleep side-by-side in twin single beds, and wreak negativity and resentment on each other incessantly. Their situation seems to be the pinnacle of so many bitter and stifling family relationships in European film. Erika’s stiff and repressed exterior is counter-balanced by her solitary excursions to porn shops, her viewing of coin slot videos, and her genital self-mutilation in the bathroom at home. In one hilarious scene she is caught peeing as she perves on a teenage couple having sex at a drive-in.

After a brief introduction to the mother-daughter relationship, the film begins with the first meeting of Erika and a talented young pianist, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel). Erika and Klemmer discuss composers and Erika talks specifically about Schumann, and a piece he wrote in the “twilight” of his mental decline. This twilight is described as a brief period in which he was aware of his mental deterioration, yet still had a grip on the sane world. This film is positioned in this expanded view of the world, one which sees the aberrant as plainly as the everyday. In the conversation between Erika and Klemmer, Erika pointedly quotes Adorno in reference to the relationship between insanity and creative impulse.

The Piano Teacher

Walter represents everything that Erika is not. He comes from a wealthy family. He is ridiculously good looking. Calm, confident, self-assured. Balanced. Talented. Sporting. We get the impression life has always gone his way. As someone who has apparently easily attained so much success, and who is psychologically her opposite, Klemmer simultaneously attracts Erika’s admiration and envy; she feels fear, hatred and attraction. The contravention of predictable movie romance here is outstanding – Klemmer’s advances toward Erika are quite conventional but her awkward rebukes and redirections are totally uncommon in film. Their sexual lingua franca is deftly built into a stilted arrhythmia which derails the typical format of movie sex scenes.

The film portrays the gradual destruction of Erika’s sanity under the equally alienating twin identities of aggressive masculinity and regressive femininity. These elements appear as cultural strictures interfacing with facets of her individual psychology. Irrespective of sexual biology, the appropriation of traditionally male aggression seems an unsuccessful tactic for Erika. She is still bounded by a lack of communication and a correlating female victim role. Erika orbits distorted extremes of feminine and masculine, action and repression. Her behaviour encompasses polarities which eventually collapse her sense of self.

The Piano Teacher is a restrained yet intense film. Director Michael Haneke’s determined stare confronts the audience with the implications of their own voyeurism. Who could watch without at least a slight twitch or squirm? Some audiences become audibly uncomfortable whilst watching this film. There is no refraction here into more tangible and comprehensible narrative. No art-school grunge aesthetic to give safe distance from reality. This film concedes little for the pleasure or reassurance of its audience. Haneke has no use for the usual grab-bag of worn out narrative devices. The energetic propulsion of the story comes purely from Erika’s unruly actions. The plot frustrates traditional romantic narrative form at every turn. In this sense the film represents directly the severe repression of its beleaguered central character. As she crumbles under the weight of a world she doesn’t fit into, the audience is left to consider their reaction to witnessing these acts. The kind of games Haneke plays with plot expectations and the viewers’ navigational role are unfaltering reprisals against melodrama and the audience that consumes it. This kind of disciplinary action reflects upon the complex interplay of entertainment and cultural substance in film and music.

A large percentage of ‘cutters’ (or people who self-harm) have been abused by someone else at an earlier stage. Rape fantasies are also common amongst victims of sexual abuse. There is a challenge to the audience here to respond to what they see of Erika (as she displays both these behaviours) in the absence of any revelation of her formative experiences. This is similar to what it is like for the inexperienced lay person to see socially abnormal behaviour in another. And usually this kind of behaviour results in dismissal, rejection, ostracisation. Director Michael Haneke and actor Isabelle Huppert tread a fraught line, conjuring up a tenuous yet coercive empathy for Erika as she ventures well beyond conventional film territory.

This film bears witness to the difficulties of renegade sexual politics. It seems Erika’s psychosexual fantasies are built on voyeurism and extreme divergence of her mental self from her physical self. Erika requests detailed fantasies of Klemmer which are dysfunctional in the sense that they developed out of repression rather than practical exploration of sex. Erika is a sexual maverick stuck with isolation. She wants to connect with Klemmer but has no idea how to. The onus is placed on social institutions and on those who unknowingly sustain the rigid and restrictive expectations which have repressed her instincts in the first place, allowing abusive patterns to be repeated.

The tragic trajectory of the plot consists of the relatively short period in which Erika breaks down. So of what benefit is it for the film to withhold so much of Erika’s apparently relevant past? This film is made real by its frank inclusion of contradictions, incongruities and rarely seen activities. While it may give representation to underexposed transgressive sexual politics, it does not interrogate the internal logic of Erika’s behaviour in the context of her life experiences. Hence it does not clearly debunk traditional perceptions of idiosyncrasy as madness. Haneke’s real interest seems to be in the role of the audience viewing this situation without the assistance of explanation.

This film strategically does just what Erika’s mother and most of the world does in the face of abnormal behaviour: refuses to interact with it. The night Erika’s sexual requests are scorned by Klemmer, she climbs onto her mother, kissing her, telling her she loves her, as though to have sex with her. Her mother tells her she is mad and then tells her to get some sleep and make sure her performance the following day will be up to standard. Inherent to Erika’s isolation is the fact that no-one is talking to her about her behaviour. Haneke’s camera looks at Erika with a determined formal reticence. Just as Erika’s perceptions are flawed by her disengaged encounters with sex, misinterpretations abound when an audience has such a vicarious encounter with an awry psychological world.

The Piano Teacher

The risk here is that the work can be left wide open for misinterpretation. Here is this convoluted thing which is not clearly progressive or redemptive. It’s a by-product of life. Erika is not an easy character. She descends into dysfunction. In fact Erika is not insane, she’s just fucked up, and probably had some bad shit happen earlier in life. Although the book may tell more, from the film we can only speculate about the past which brought Erika to the point at which we see her. What can be seen through this severely contracted window on Erika’s life? Haneke manages to exactingly measure the critical distance required to achieve an empathetic portrait of Erika, in conjunction with a trajectory of events which move inexorably beyond the viewer’s control or understanding. It’s a power game which is a stab in the eye for the innocent bystander; our powerlessness to help introduces a subtle current of trauma to the ostensibly clinical tone of the film. Haneke pinpoints a growing urge to disengage from this discomfort as it pushes at the limits of empathy or compassion.

Art has been associated with unrealistic ideas of perfection and control. A controlled world. Art which is consciously multiplicitous and confronting may have a powerful yet potentially anaesthetising effect. A proliferation of reviews which focus on red-herrings and superficial impressions must be a daunting prospect for any artist attempting a level of density and complexity. One reviewer points to the “sublime music” and “shocking depraved sexual acts” of this film providing “vast contrasts” (1). In fact there are far more similarities than differences. It’s a fused world, that of Erika, her family life, her sexuality, and the academic traditions of Romantic music. Most of the film’s musical selections are pieces which embody control of expression, perpetually traversing the contours of major and minor, tranquil and agitated, exuberant and downcast. Both Erika’s neurosis and the music she plays are thoroughly encased in this structural duality of emotional counterpoint.

The structures of Romantic music have strict rules of pleasure and pain just as Erika does. So much music seems to be a (one-way) power game for the composer aiming to manipulate feeling – controlling how fast, how much pleasure, how much pain. Erika describes the best performance as being a subtle matter of control, insisting that music should not lapse into mechanical playing nor sentimentality. Amidst these balances, music has to be ‘just right’ to hit the mark. Unfortunately for Erika, Klemmer’s performance of her sexual manuscript lacks conviction and is almost entirely mechanical. This undoubtedly fails to satisfy her exacting standards, shattering her illusion that sex is something she can rationally orchestrate as an isolated conductor rather than an active participant. This reflects the presumed scenario of sexual repression or abuse which associates pleasure with control and isolates the victim in an impassive relationship to bodily function.

Klemmer makes a bad player in Erika’s game because his experience of sex is presumably based upon a much more conventionally vindicated scenario. Many reviewers failed to pick up the subtle twist of Klemmer as Erika’s victim in the act of him mock-raping her at her request. Short-sightedly he is written off by most as a monster. This is a blatant example (and sad reminder) of how entrenched gender stereotypes are. Benoît Magimel actually does an incredible job of pulling off the role of actor playing character who is in turn attempting to play a role. He captures the splintered identity of Klemmer acting without conviction on Erika’s proposal. Erika places Klemmer in an uncomfortable experience of masculine dominance – confronting because Erika has reversed the roles normally at work in the scenario of rape: she is in the position of power.

The Piano Teacher

The contrapuntal battles of The Piano Teacher read as an allegory for the difficult marriage of creative expression with institutionalised culture. The Viennese music academy is embedded in conservative society. Although Erika’s musical performance seems to be the product of the rigorous discipline of academia and severe personal repression, she clearly has moments of personal connection to music. Usually what we see during performances in The Piano Teacher are the faces of the audience. The passive role of the audience in relation to the composer (and filmmaker) is highlighted, alluding to the different strata occupied by high-art ‘musical genius’ and its humbled audience. Isabelle Huppert epitomises control here, allowing the cracks in Erika’s self-restraint to play across her face in the presence of her favourite works being butchered by a nervous student, or the tactile Klemmer’s (musical) performance slowly eroding her guarded and demanding gaze. In fact, the only blip we see on Erika’s pleasure radar comes when she hears Klemmer play.

We are thankfully saved from gratuitous shots of musical virtuosity in this film where most filmmakers would have indulged in them. The only real lingering moment is where the camera is trained on the face of a young male opera singer. He represents a culturally sanctioned yet perverse mix of feminine and masculine. As a product of the operatic cultural ideal, he is a multiplicitous representation. His performance is all angelic idealism; over-expression, big lips, furrowed brow and oh-so-high and mellifluous voice. Totally un-masculine. The camera lingers on his expression long enough that it becomes quite repulsive. When the singer’s piano accompanist is derailed by nerves, he shows an egocentric disregard for her predicament. This seems to be a case in point of the dehumanising effect of elitism. The opera singer stands for everything that is perverted and unforgiving about the institutional Viennese music academy, and perhaps the aims of a repressive culture in general.

In the final scene Erika stabs herself in the shoulder with a large kitchen knife. She has adopted both violently opposed gender roles in a lose-lose configuration and promptly lost her self. Recrimination seems to be placed squarely on the restrictive society which isolated Erika for her transgression. Clearly, in the face of this, the viewer is prompted to think of the implications beyond a squeamish reaction. As this film disallows the vicarious redemption of a happy ending or neat explanation, it repudiates the superficial empathy of much dramatic fare. Michael Haneke achieves the masterful manipulation of a non-redemptive plot deftly undercutting the open-ended reality on screen. The Piano Teacher stands as a phenomenal indictment of lax dramatic narrative and a deep observation of the precariousness of compassion.


  1. Louise Keller, ‘Piano Teacher, The,’ Urban Cinefile, www.urbancinefile.com.au/home/view.asp?a=6311&s=Reviews. Accessed April 2003.

About The Author

Nina Hutchison is an Honours degree candidate of RMIT's Media Arts course, specialising in mixed media art.

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