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Here’s Why ‘The Piano Teacher’ is One of The Most Disturbing Films Ever Made

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Michael Haneke – A God and A provocateur

Michael Haneke is either a cynical God exposing our complicity to casual violence in films that we hardly acknowledge or a provocative & sadistic filmmaker who has lost faith in humans. Whatever may be the case, his films are difficult to watch on two fronts; they are inherently disturbing, even cruel at times; and he ensures that our voyeuristic participation in the on-screen violent events gets registered in our consciousness. That’s a dreadful feeling which gradually seeps into our subconsciousness.




Haneke’s films provide access to the psyche of our darker corners insulated under the garb of accepted social behavior. If you are familiar with Michael Haneke’s work, his films offer psychological and cognitive fodder for punishing thoughts to run wild, at the mercy of explanation to find closure. However, Haneke never provides the closure. If you allow yourself to pay close attention to the subtexts, connotations and dig deeper into them, the revelation may, very well, screw up your mental and emotional state. That’s exactly the damaging effect of Haneke’s films.

Haneke's The Piano Teacher
Courtesy @CriterionCollection

‘The Piano Teacher’

“The Piano Teacher” offers an unpleasant and traumatic experience to sit through. Calling it ‘disturbing’ will be a massive understatement. It’s been a few weeks, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it yet. The problem is that these thoughts are no less than night terrors. They entrap our minds and leave us claustrophobic, but that’s exactly what Michael Haneke intends to achieve.

Haneke aspired to adapt it back when Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek published the novel in 1983. However, Jelinek and Valie Export had already adapted it into a screenplay, which later got dropped due to lack of investment. Austrian filmmaker and actor Paulus Manker bought the rights to the film and asked Haneke to adapt the film, keeping the directorial chair for himself. Failing to secure the necessary budget, producers instead asked Haneke to direct the film as well. Haneke’s only condition to make this film was to have Isabelle Huppert play the lead role.

Anti-thesis to Mama Mia!

Isabelle Huppert’s sadomasochistic piano teacher, Erika finds herself at the center of this Kafkaesque plot. She lives like a hermit with her despotic mother in a rented house. They often get violently aggressive, and at times, physical when one tries to control the other. Haneke’s establishes their love-hate relationship in the first sequence itself. After a short quarrel over the time gap which Erika cannot explain, she violently tears her mother’s hair. Later they patch up and cry, and behave as if it’s a normal-accepted behavior in their family. They hug each other over a late-night coffee. “We are short-tempered,” her mother sobs. Underneath this family unit lies a perplexing psychosis.

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Erika’s father is in a psychiatric asylum. The film never makes it clear why. Perhaps the answer lies in the brutal power dynamics that Erika and her mother share. Father’s absence propels mother-daughter to feud for control. Mother exhibits the control by choosing Erika’s wardrobe, constantly checking on her, pushing her to become ‘man of the house’.




In the novel, the mother waited twenty years before having Erika. Neither the novel nor the film indulges in what ambition she gave up to bear a child after such a long wait. However, the burden must be too heavy to emphatically lade her hopes on Erika. In a way, she imagines Erika vicariously accomplishing the dreams on her behalf. Erika’s failure to become a concert pianist sows the seeds of bitterness in their relationship. The mother’s disappointment in Erika is revealed in her irritable behavior.

Erika’s masochism

Haneke presents her sexual masochism as a pathological sublimation of her repressed emotions and the absence of an authoritative figure at home, i.e., her father. “The urge to be beaten has been in me for years” Erika explains. Freud, in his Ein Kind wird geschlagen (A Child is Being Beaten), claims the beating fantasies ultimately reveal that the figure of the father is the desired punisher. In The Piano Teacher, Erika‘s father is simultaneously absent and present as a shadow. In one of the scenes, Erika punishes herself by mutilating her vagina using a blade that could perhaps be of her father.

Erika’s every scene of “perversion” is as an effect whose provenience lies in the traumatic events of her personal life and her dysfunctional relationship. She watches pornography in a booth at a local sex shop with a straight face, sniffing semen-soaked tissues from the bin. Lack of any emotional and sexual intimacy manifests in paraphilia. Ironically, her perversity is thoughtfully contrasted to classical music that Haneke operates to achieve equilibrium for both – the film & Erika’s life.

Stream Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher on MUBI

Her impassiveness meets romantic in a young, handsome and charming Walter. He first flirts her with the theatrics of charm, complimenting her through the conversation & then enrolls to her class. In one of the most beautiful scenes and acted to perfection, Huppert’s Erika stays expressionless for a minute before fine lines of her face and eye muscles twitch, responding to Walter playing the piano. They soon start an affair, but not a usual one. Deprived of any kind of relationship – physical or romantic – with any person over the years, the elicited sexual fantasies takes refuge in masochism. Erika is a perfectionist & in control of herself and her environment. That’s why it does not seem strange when she puts boundaries to their first sexual confrontation inside the conservatory’s washroom.

Erika’s sexual fantasy

On Walter’s visit to Erika’s apartment, she finally tells him what she wants in a written note with all nuances and details meticulously chalked out. She shuts him in her room and makes him read her lengthy letter — graphically detailing all the ways in which she wishes for him to exert dominance over her sexually — and agree to do as she desires.

Fantasies include choking her, punching her, and her wearing clothes of his favorite color. This behavior ties back to what Freud claims about masochism. She wants to give control to Walter to become an authoritative figure, but this is merely a deception. She is in control, actually. He first takes it as a joke, a disgusting one. Later finds it frustrating and then she repulses him. Still, like any good teacher, she manages to get her fantasies into his head. It is a dangerous place for both to be in.




The Piano Teacher – Violent breakdown

Consumed by Erika’s fantasy and curiosity, Walter gives in to her wish and enacts it for her. What follows next is the most disconcerting and grotesque sexual act in film history. Erika, who never had a sexual encounter, finds her fantasy getting dismantled violently as Walter abuses the control and rapes her. What it displays is Walter’s perverted feeling, devoid of emotions and respect for Erika. He violates the only weapon Erika had: the complete control.  It turns into a nightmare for her that distorts her reality and breaks her for good. In the end, the final violent encounter between them ends in ambiguity. Who has hurt whom?

Also, read –  How Haneke plays with the audience expectations in ‘Funny Games’

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