Michael Haneke has long been viewed as a manipulative filmmaker; a director who channels his audience’s unease and betrays their trust. He assaults the viewer’s sense of decency and makes them question the definitions of right and wrong. The Piano Teacher is perhaps one of Haneke’s toughest films to watch, dwelling on the darker aspects of human nature, and the things some people will do to achieve sexual satisfaction. I am talking about sadomasochistic sexual activity and voyeurism.
The sexual masochist in this film is a piano teacher and a professor at a music school in Vienna. Her name is Erika, and she enjoys feeling pain. In one scene she mutilates her genitals with a razorblade while sitting on the edge of a bath. We see the blood run down the sides of the tub as she slides the razor into herself. It’s a horrible scene, one that came almost eight years before Lars von Trier directed Charlotte Gainsbourg to do similar damage with a pair of rusty scissors in Antichrist. However, in this moment we are forced to confront our feelings about this woman. Are we repulsed by her? Do we pity her for what her sexual compulsions make her do? Are we angry at being made to watch such aberrant behaviour? It goes without saying that Haneke doesn’t give any easy answers to these difficult questions.
Even if one sets her secret desires to one side, Erika is still far from what most viewers would class as normal. She is nearing forty, but shares a flat with her mother who nags and moans at her when she returns home late. She may have reached a level of eminence in her profession, but Erika is consistently cruel to her pupils. At one point she puts pieces of broken glass in the pocket of a young pianist’s coat. This disfigures one of the girl’s hands, and we get the sense Erika has derived great pleasure from this bloody result. The scene itself, were the young girl cuts her hand on the shards of glass is a masterpiece in unsettling human horror, and its most disturbing aspect comes from its surprising and sadistic sense of humour.
The main crux of the film is a relationship Erika strikes up with an attractive young man named Walter. He finds her alluring, so starts to take lessons with her. While teaching him Erika is cold and nasty towards him, but he can’t help finding her attractive. He attempts to seduce her, but when they do finally get physical it is on the condition he abides by her rules. On their first sexual encounter, in a public restroom, she pleasures his orally, though stops before he reaches orgasm. She makes him hold his hands away from his crotch and walks to the other end of the room, watching him hold himself back from masturbating himself to orgasm. She gets pleasure from limiting his pleasure. In response to this bizarre and intense event, she writes him a letter detailing what she wants him to do to her. He is outraged by her demands.
The film catalogues many types of sexual activity that even its more liberal viewers may deem revolting, morally repugnant and obscene. There is even a moment of real sex, when we see Erika indulge her voyeuristic tendencies by watching extreme pornography.
The script, written by Haneke, adapted from a novel by Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek, doesn’t always ask us to sympathise witch Erika, but it does make us face the fact that even the most respectable and intelligent people in our society can harbour dark desires. The most disquieting part of this process of recognition we, as an audience, go through is the question that we have all asked from time to time: does this type of film encourage such behaviour? Erika’s activities are certainly not glamorised, but by watching this film could some viewers start to experience desires they never knew they had? Of course, such discussions inevitably lead to the subject of censorship, and whether or not films such as this should be made, receive funding, and be allowed exhibition.
Whatever your feelings are about such issues, The Piano Teacher is an unforgettable experience. It may seriously disturb you. It’s likely to upset you. But it is a compelling and significant example of the power of cinema; an art form which refuses to conform and consistently seeks to challenge. Haneke may not be a director that suits all tastes, but he should certainly not be underestimated.
The Piano Teacher (2001) is available on DVD from Artificial Eye, Certificate 18. Prospective viewers are warned that this film, as discussed in the review, contains graphic scenes that some people may find upsetting.