THE PIANO TEACHER

Words: NATALIE ELLISON
April 6, 2013

Erika’s a sex pest: it’s west but only the best from Haneke In celebration of Haneke’s most recent oscar win, foreign tragedy Amour, I decided to shed light on another innovative masterpiece that similarly showcases his versatile, genius direction: The Piano Teacher (2001). Through the title alone, Haneke hints at the films intent: to portray […]


Erika’s a sex pest: it’s west but only the best from Haneke

In celebration of Haneke’s most recent oscar win, foreign tragedy Amour, I decided to shed light on another innovative masterpiece that similarly showcases his versatile, genius direction: The Piano Teacher (2001). Through the title alone, Haneke hints at the films intent: to portray human restraint: the pressures of being made to perform under a ‘label’ whilst under oppressive social norms and expectation.

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The protagonist, Erika embodies the human inability to control expression (in a repressive environment such as general society) through her dysfunctional state. She chooses to endorse in voyeurism, longs for sexual violence and cuts herself, as she is made subject to a lifestyle where she is mentally ignored, of which consequently leads to her inevitable death.

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Walter her ‘lover’ at the beginning, seems besotted by her ambiguity and ‘game playing’: he is in complete awe of her talent. He follows her into the toilets, where she finally responds to his chasing. However when she eventually does, she does so with a twist: she reacts half heartedly (teasing him sexually) demanding him to wait until he receives a letter of the things that he ‘can do to her’, before they can resume any sort of sexual contact. This frustrates Walter not only sexually but also mentally as he confesses that he loves her, and her lack of ability to reciprocate any sort of emotion only exasperates him further, yet he misinterprets her cold feelings as ‘game playing’ and waits to receive a letter.

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After another attempt to pursue Erika in one of her piano lessons, Walter tries again, however this time by following her back to her house. With the intention to confess his feelings and to display his affection, he is determined to seduce her successfully. However, she harshly rejects his romantic advances repeatedly, demanding him to read the letter in order for anything sexual to occur. Defeated and deflated, he retrieves the letter out of his bag (that is situated on the top of a chest of drawers, being used to barricade the doorway to prevent her nosey, psychopathic mother from intruding), which he chooses to read aloud. Walter, to his ignorance discovers that Erika is not ‘too shy’ to talk sexually, but actually ‘mentally abnormal’, as he reads her serf-like instructions: “tighten my bonds please. Adjust the belt by at least 2 or 3 holes, the tighter the better. Then, gag me with some stockings I will have ready. Stuff them in so hard that I’m incapable…of making any sound. Next, take off the blindfold please and sit down on my face and punch me in the stomach to force me to thrust my tongue in your behind” and ‘lock me up next door to my mother’ so that I am ‘out of reach’.

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Walter: the man who could not be psychologically more opposite: handsome, ‘normal’, partakes in sports, naturally talented and mentally balanced reacts reasonably: “You need treatment” “You’re sick.” It’s Walter’s ability to cope under the pressures of pertaining to a balanced lifestyle, alongside possessing ‘normal’ qualities that Erika envies, and through jealousy, has arguably tried to rupture through her mental games of manipulation: toying with his feelings, sexually teasing him, and choosing when to react to his advances (only when she wants to) even though she is fully aware of his love for her.

Erika longs to be sexually powerless, a sex slave, perhaps due to the controlling, dehumanizing lifestyle she lives of being a teacher? Or as an escape method to find solace and pleasure from an alien-like society of which she is ensnared, due to her inability to relate, and her failure to control expression?

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After Walter bursts out in disgust, Erika pays an unexpected visit to his hockey training, where she pleads for his attention, telling him that she loves him and that they will ‘play to his rules’: she’s sorry. After a huge shift in role reversal, Erika now begging for Walter, Walter exerts a ‘typical’ male gender stereotype by ‘giving in’, letting her perform oral sex, despite his earlier conviction of being ‘disgusted’ by her.

Erika is sick after giving Walter oral sex, perhaps representative of her failure to react with Walter physically due to her mentality being too unbalanced for his. The film progresses and as Walter and her Mother continue to neglect her unstable mentality (her mother too blinded by the possible success, fame and money her daughter could achieve, and Walter ‘too male’ to reject her sexually even if she is ‘mental’: “Love isn’t everything you know. See you”) Erika, after being beaten and raped (‘her sexual fantasy’ or so she thought), lies on the floor, covered in blood, seemingly traumatised- perhaps not the ‘abnormal’ fantasy she had anticipated.

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After realising that she fails to find satisfaction through feigning a ‘normal’ lifestyle and through behaving ‘abnormally’ Erika buckles under the inability to express herself, and takes the plunge, choosing to stab herself just before she is about to perform piano. The film concludes by masterfully disallowing a neat explanation, as Erika walks off bleeding leaving the viewer’s unknown to whether or not she has committed suicide. Haneke detracts any sort of exaggerated empathy from doing so and also achieves the open-ended reality, which is the unfathomable complexity of the interrogative: ‘what is normal?’

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Haneke skillfully mixes sexual intercourse with physical violence, such a dysfunctional concept, and juxtaposes it with a very trivial task of ‘teaching piano’, which effectively paradoxes two very different lifestyles in a way that questions the viewer’s perception of normality. Additionally, Haneke also addresses the importance of being able to control expression in a demanding, oppressive society. Faultless direction from Haneke (of course), alongside racy screenplay and exceptional acting especially from feisty Isabelle Huppert (we’d expect nothing less) makes The Piano Teacher a definite must watch


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