The Piano Teacher (2001)

Michael Haneke is without a doubt one of the most recognized and critically successful contemporary European auteurs. His films are challenging and often unpleasant to watch, but at the same time admirable and unforgettable, for he delves into painfully honest presentations of our society’s anxieties and uncertainties; something that very few directors have ever dared to do. As Janina Falkowska points out, “Haneke leaves no hope in his films, but throws the spectator into a state of despair and pain.” (Falkowska, 2007) The Piano Teacher, a literary adaptation of Elfride Jelinek’s 1984 novel of the same name, is one of his least typical films, for it is also his only film based on a pre-existing material. However, it is also a film that gained him an international recognition and that has perplexed, as well as inspired, many film critics and psychoanalysts since its release. Many of them decided to delve deep into the narrative and aesthetics of the film, trying to figure out the puzzling, at times also quite revolting main character, while also trying to find the answer to the ambiguous and confusing ending. Since Haneke continuously refuses to talk about his film’s interpretations, we can never know for sure what certain details and shocking open endings are supposed to mean. What we do know, however, is that Haneke intentionally tries to lure us into “a self-reflexive voyeurism to rape the spectator into autonomy and awareness”. (Landwehr, 2011) This raping of the audience into being reflexive and intellectually independent  in some disturbing way very much resonates with one of the last and indeed the most uncomfortable scenes in The Piano Teacher – but let’s first focus on the beginning where Haneke in one short scene manages to establish exactly what film we are about to witness. The film opens with Erika Kohut, a middle-aged piano teacher at a music conservatory in Vienna, entering a cramped, overly-furnished and somehow claustrophobic apartment that she shares with her ever-present, over-controlling, suffocating mother. The whole sequence is filmed in a close-up or a medium shot; something that makes us even more aware of Erika’s spatial (as well as emotional and developmental) entrapment by her mother who clearly sees Erika as an extension of her own body. She immediately insists on knowing why Erika (whom she greets with “Good evening, child”) is late, for her last piano lecture ended hours ago. Erika, clearly annoyed by her mother’s nosiness but at the same time unable to stand up for herself and set up the boundaries between the two, tries to explain that she went for a walk after spending “eight hours in a cage” – the cage being the musical room where she teaches, if not simply her whole life: her work place, as well as the apartment where she lives, since both those places are under her mother’s constant surveillance. The mother, clearly not convinced by her answer, responds by pulling Erika’s purse out of her hands, turning it inside out, with which the dynamic of their pathological, destructive relationship is fully displayed to the viewers, making us aware of the fact that the purse is meant to be a symbolic representation of both Erika’s personal life, as well as of her physical body in general, for the mother’s examining of the purse’s content implies that Erika is allowed no private internal space.This is further implied when Erika enters the bathroom, the one place in an apartment where most of us expect to have some privacy: while momentarily being physically distanced from the mother while she is brushing her teeth, the mother’s voice, communicating a set of demands on how Erika should earn more money, still penetrates into the room, stealing the last bit of Erika’s privacy (this scene is later paralleled by another bathroom scene where Erika is cutting her genitals while the mother’s voice, this time calling her to dinner, once again penetrates into the room, disrupting her in the midst of her disturbing self-mutilation). By the mother-daughter dyadic duo always being shot closely together, Haneke’s camera is implying that there is no empty space between them: that they are one and the same, since the mother seems unable to break the maternal bond with her child. By thinking of Erika’s body as an extension of her own she is preventing Erika, whose masochistic and sadistic acts should be read as an attempt of her breaking free from the mother whom she still perceives as being a part of her, to fully step into the world of the symbolic order. Their pathological connectedness is further depicted in the scene where they get ready for bed – for what this scene reveals is that they sleep together in the master bedroom where Erika clearly replaced the role of her absent father. “Their pathological, hostile-dependent relationship results in Erika’s defensive identification with the male who has the power to possess and dominate the mother”. (Wyatt 2005) This identification at one point goes as far as Erika actually kissing and attempting to sexually assault the mother. She also seems to identify with the male audience while watching pornography in a booth of a sex shop where she often spends time after work – however, as Slavoj Žižek notes in Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, her looking at porn is not to get aroused, for she is looking at the pictures as a pupil who is trying to learn and consequently builds her sexual fantasies based on what she sees in these films.

Lacan’s psychoanalysis recognizes the “maternal desire as the crucial factor that forces a child to separate from its early fused identification with mother” (Wyatt 2005: 458). Because only when the child realizes that the mother lacks something, which makes her direct a part of her desire elsewhere, is the child “forced to recognize that he/she is a split and lacking subject” (Homer 2005) and to realize that he/she is “not mother’s immediate and sole object, which opens up the field of others beyond the mother-child dyad and thus the possibility for other objects”. (Wyatt 2005: 458) However, Erika cannot establish her desire for there is no maternal desire which would pressure her into recognizing her lack. This is represented in a scene taking place during a private musical recital where a man is trying to get the mother’s attention by showing her his antique collection of musical instruments, only to get a complete disinterest as a response. She who, just as Erika, seems to possess nothing other but jouissance, seems incapable of directing her attention to anything outside of Erika, who is at that time talking to her future student and lover Walter. What thus seems to be at the core of The Piano Teacher is the portrayal of both the mother’s and Erika’s jouissance, which is a Lacanian term for an “expression of drive energy, erotic and/or aggressive, that exceeds the limits of social rule and restraint and goes beyond pleasure, even beyond self-preservation” (Wyatt 2005: 453), making it closely associated with Freud’s death drive and the real.

Kristeva, who mostly followed Lacan’s psychoanalytic model, made some variations when it came to Lacan’s model of psychosexual development. What seems to be one of her most important attributions is her introduction of a term “abjection”, with which she describes something that “does not respect borders, positions and rules, which disturbs identity, system and order”. (Creed: 68) As it happens, “one of the key figures of abjection is the mother who becomes an abject at the moment when the child rejects her for the father who represents the symbolic order.” (Kristeva in Creed: 68) Since Erika’s father has been absent for her entire childhood, she was never able to establish herself as a symbolic subject based on lack and emerging as a subject of desire, which resulted in her pathological attachment to the mother who is using her “as the object that completes her”. (Wyatt 2005) Kristeva posits the stage associated with the abject in a pre-linguistic (and with that, pre-mirror) stage in which “a child is beginning to establish a separation between him/herself and the maternal, creating boundaries between self and other”. Erika and her mother are clearly unable to realize this separation that would let Erika to grow up and perceive herself as her own, differentiated individual, which results in Erika’s entrapment in this mother-daughter dyad from which there is seemingly no possible escape. As Kristeva explains, “all individuals experience abjection at the time of their earliest attempts to break away from the mother; when they struggle to break free – and it is in this attempt to break away that the mother becomes an abject”. (Kristeva in Creed: 72) It is with this in mind that we should interpret Erika’s vomiting, urinating and (usually self-inflicted) bleeding, for she is trying to eject the maternal Other out of her body; something that is most notably presented in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes of her slicing her genitals with a razor-blade, as if she is trying to establish “a minimal degree of distinction from the mother at the level of the body, as if she experiences her mother’s over-proximity as a corporeal fusion that requires a separation between skin and skin, flesh and flesh.” (Wyatt 2005) Her genital mutilation can thus be seen as “an attempt at removal from the mother, especially if read as a symbolic triggering of menstruation, implying maturation from girlhood to womanhood”. (Restuccia 2012: 63) When later joining her mother in the dining room, with her blood still dripping down her leg, her mother’s initial reaction, thinking its Erika’s menstrual blood, is repulsion: her announcement of how unappetizing Erika’s blood is “reveals her unease with this supposed sign of her daughter’s sexual maturity.” (Restuccia 2012: 64)

This is far from being the only time where the cutting occurs – the film seems to be saturated with it. After finding an elegant, but rather expensive frock while examining her daughter’s purse, the mother asserts to Erika: “I should cut off your hands”. Soon after we are introduced to the opening credits, seeing different hands practising a piano in conservatory’s music room: hands that are cut off from the body by the director, reminding us both of the mother’s vicious comment in an earlier scene, as well as of the fact that Erika does not perceive her pupils as whole human beings. This is later even more loudly echoed by her student’s mother who, after Erika puts glass in her student’s coat, permanently damaging her hand and quite possibly ruining her future as a pianist, comments that “whoever cut her daughter’s hands should have his hands chopped off”. Erika’s cutting of her student’s hands might be taken as vicarious fulfilment of the threat/wish of her own mother toward her, but given her student’s position of submission to maternal pressure and control, “Erika’s cruel act could also be read as offering a long, if not final, benevolent respite to her student Ana from her mother’s overbearing influence”. (Restuccia 2012: 63) Since Ana is supposed to represent a younger version of Erika (hence also a parallel of Ana’s domineering mother to Erika’s own), it is quite possible that Erika’s horrendous act at some level represented her trying to free Ana from the same miserable future of a pianist, since pursuing musical career is clearly more of a mother’s wish than of Ana herself. This why she is giving her an opportunity of freeing herself from the mother’s influence and finding something that she herself desires to do in life.

In the suffocating dyad, in which there is no room for mother’s desire and consequently also no possibility for Erika’s desire, it is quite apparent from the very beginning that Walter’s sudden presence will have a disastrous consequence for Erika whose life soon begins to spiral even more drastically towards self-destruction. His intrusion in their relationship is visually established during their first encounter, when Erika shuts the elevator doors before he could enter, closing herself and her mother into the small, cage-like elevator room that is perfectly portraying their claustrophobic, isolated reality based in the real – while Walter, on the other hand, represents an outside (symbolic) world of lack and desire. It is not until Erika hears him play that she becomes intrigued by the young man (something that is communicated to the audience by the mere twitch in her upper lip while the camera zooms in an extreme close-up of her face during the piano recital). And since the feeling seems to be mutual, for he is equally fascinated by her musical talent and intelligence, he soon starts to attend the conservatory in an attempt to seduce her. Walter, being young and fairly self-absorbed, is therefore completely clueless about her emotional immaturity and sexual perversion that hides below the façade of her intimidating strictness and perfectionism; traits that he somehow finds fascinating and desirable.

Her perversion expresses itself “as a need to control the phallus” (Wyatt 2005) – something that is portrayed in Erika and Walter’s first sexual encounter in the conservatory’s bathroom, where they seem to be battling over who will take control over the situation. The sexual dynamic seems to be somehow similar to that of film noir, with “Erika embodying a femme fatale who tries to seduce the representative of masculine identity into her world of destructive sexuality – a sexual immersion that would dissolve his masculinity by depriving him of the autonomy, mastery and phallic control that constitute its core”. (Wyatt 2005) After the initial battle for control, where the whole sexual encounter is entirely off-screen, invisible to us, the voyeurs, who are left in a painfully long one-take shot of Walter’s face filled with pain and agony, Walter still believes that their relationship is bound to progress. And it is not until Erika writes him a letter in which she  explains what she wants from their relationship, that he gets a glimpse of her perversion – although it can be said that he does not quite understand what she is trying to communicate, as we can see from the numerous questions that he poses and that she lefts unanswered; a scene that once again establishes her not living fully in a world of symbolic order, for she is obviously using a language, but is unable to communicate with another person, of engaging in a dialogue. Walter, not understanding what it is she wants from him, and as a representative of a bourgeois society a part of which they both are, is visibly repulsed by her and in a burst of disbelief and anger suggests that she should get some help. When he later re-enacts her letter after breaking into her apartment overcome by rage, he fulfils her sexual fantasy that at first so much repulsed him and, as Žižek points out, “gives her an opportunity to transform herself. Erika’s blankness during the rape, her corpse-like position and ashen facial expression only enhance the point that she is entering absence, an abyss, an empty psychic space that will enable her to configure herself”. (Žižek in Restuccia 2012: 68)

The final act of her cutting, as she stabs herself right above the heart at the entrance hall of the conservatory where she is about to perform at the musical recital, closes this film’s narrative. This can be read as one last, and quite possibly her only successful attempt at breaking free from her mother. As wounded Erika decides to walk out of the conservatory and onto the busy street full of anonymous car drivers unaware of her injury, the camera finally zooms away from the medium close-up shot. The space around her is opening up and we can indeed interpret the ending as her walking towards her newly-established freedom. “The former submissive Erika is now dead, her fundamental melancholic fantasy gluing her to the demanding mother traversed.” (Restuccia 2012: 68) The wound and its blood that cover up her beige coat could thus signify her finally ejecting her mother, as well as her menstrual blood, finally transforming her from an infant, undifferentiated from her mother, to an independent woman, free of the suffocating mother-daughter bond.

This was originally written for my Psychoanalysis of Film class at Anglo-American University in Prague.

List of references:

  1. Creed, Barbara: The Monstrous Feminine
  2. Falkowska, Janina (2007): Michael Haneke, Mourning and Melancholia in European Cinema
  3. Homer, Sean (2005): Jeaques Lacan
  4. Kristeva, Julia: Modules on Kristeva – The Abject
  5. Landwehr, Margarete Johanna (2011): Voyeurism, Violence and the Power of the Media: The Reader’s/Spectator’s Complicity in Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher and Haneke’s La Pianiste, Cache, The White Ribbon
  6. Restuccia, Frances (2012): The Blue Box – Kristevan/Lacanian Readings of Contemporary Cinema
  7. Wyatt, Jean (2005): Jouissance and Desire in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher