The Piano Teacher – Jelinek and Haneke and Austria. (film review)

In 2001 when Michael Haneke decided to adapt Elfriede Jelinek’s amazing novel The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek had not yet won the Nobel Prize for her work, and Haneke had not yet made The White RibbonThe Piano Teacher is a direct (and one of many regular) criticism of Austrian society by Elfriede Jelinek.  She wants to highlight the deep roots of Nazism that still affect and damage the society.  Haneke rarely likes to reserve his criticism for one particular nation, preferring instead to shine a spotlight on all cinema viewers when he aims his critique, however he does state plainly (something Haneke never likes to do) in The White Ribbon that what he is showing is the direct root of terrorism.

Haneke had to have been attracted to The Piano Teacher for its world within worlds narrative. Jelinek (in my opinion) is by far the superior when it comes to that inner destructive narrative that we all have and all have to be accountable for – but that’s not entirely fair because Jelinek gets to use novels while Haneke only has film. Rather than speak to Haneke’s traditions, The Piano Teacher represents a turn toward something new that he will repeat in future films. The Piano Teacher has the sublime critique of the puffed up European culture and its associated snobbery – a theme he will revisit in Cache. The Piano Teacher displays a complex relationship between culture, country and writhing repression that will burst itself open on the bodies of its individual citizens – a theme Haneke will revisit in The White Ribbon. The Piano Teacher is also about a talented great piano teacher who suffers from an aliment that will come between her and her students – a theme Haneke will revisit in Amour.

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I’ve been reading a great deal of Elfrede Jelinek lately.  I seem to come back to her every few years – and I probably re-read one of her novels at least every year. She is easily my favorite writer, and I am kind of stuck with only a translation of her work, even though I understand Joachim Neugroschel’s translation to be excellent. The devotion Haneke has given to his adaptation of her novel tells me he is a great fan of his fellow Austrian as well. Believe it or not, the novel is more vicious and more devastating than Haneke’s interpretation.  He also brings something quite different. The novel is more frenzied, but Haneke is always holding his still camera, watching the space, waiting for action. His washed out images add a strange sort of sterility to the already disturbing and complicated story of Erika Kohut.

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Like The White Ribbon, Haneke draws parallels between relationships in order to explain certain kinds of behavior. On the surface Erika’s pathologies seem to defy explanation, and yet when examined through the relationship with her domineering mother, we begin to wonder that Erika (Isabelle Huppert) is as sane as she is. Sex and the erotic is something that has always been denied her, the implication being that she is a professional musician of the highest order and therefore above the basic desires of the body. In the novel, Erika is described as her mothers possession.  Her mother sees the control and domination of her daughter as a gift to her daughter, and something for which her child is in her debt. Erika was destined to become a great pianist. It was her mothers will.  Erika is not only to be dominated but she must also be grateful for this domination.

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From a purely feminist perspective (and Jelinek is a feminist writer) this book and film are one of the best you will ever see that give you a strong indication of the difference between erotic domination, and the vicious cruel domination so often exhibited within relationships – stereotypically between men and women. One of Freud’s great questions was why women are so ‘naturally’ masochistic and why they ‘solicit’ the mistreatment of men. This question remains relevant with the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey bringing the question of female subjugation to the fore again. Do women want to be dominated?  Well, say Haneke and Jelinek – that all depends on what you think domination is.

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When Erika starts up her relationship with the handsome, sexually magnetic Walter Klemmer ( Benoît Magimel) she has made the terrible error almost every woman before her (and after her) has made at some point in their life. She mistakes his boyish charm, intelligence and charisma for confidence, and she will  place her vulnerable self in the hands of a seventeen year old boy-man. Klemmer never, at any stage, has the maturity to handle Erika; even if she was a healthy woman who wanted to play “domination games” he was way out of his depth.  He attacks her for being ugly and sick when she opens up and reveals herself to him. He then refuses to see her, only to come back and beat her and rape her when he can’t get her exciting suggestions out of his head and feels she has infected him with her ugliness. The domination that Walter will inflict on Erika is nothing even remotely close to what she asked for, even though he will claim she asked for it. Indeed the line drawn is so unbearably thin, Erika can’t quite tell if she asked for it or not – or to put that another way, if she is to blame for her own abuse.  But as the novel clearly states, it is the desperate sexual need in Walter revealing the love he feels is really hatred. When he claims to “give her what she asked for” the reader (and audience) is completely aware Erika never asked for what Walter dishes out.

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Interestingly, what Walter dishes out is more like a masculinized version of what the mother dishes out – and that, coupled with the strict routine music has placed on Erika’s life that completes her domination, is what has made Erika include extreme BDSM play in her sexual desire. What happened to Erika – what many women desire – is for love to convert hate.  Erika wants what many women want. She wants a loving man to erotically abuse her, turning all the abuse she has received in life into an act of sexual love. What she does not want, is to have that request turned against her, and used as an excuse to abuse her even further. This is the factor that lies at the heart of the female desire for domination. The truth of all properly followed BDSM play is that the bottom is in control, and it is they that dictate the terms to the top. The dominant is never allowed to do anything against the submissives wishes.  Their role is to push the submissive into a place that has been mutually agreed upon earlier. The relationship between Erika and Walter starts in precisely this way. She tells hm what they will do and where and then she writes it all down in a letter.  It is only when he decides he hates her and chooses to abuse her out of anger, that Erika loses all her power and becomes a pathetic sniveling woman.

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Jelinek’s voice is a clear feminist one, and many writers have suggested Haneke has removed this feminist voice, leaving the interpretation wide open. Of course, he does leave it wide open (he won’t be explaining further until The White Ribbon) but he has retained all the primary feminist issues from the Jelinek novel and with an actress of the caliber and strength of Isabelle Huppert in the role of Erika (a role for which she won best actress at Cannes) he again emphasizes the power of the narrative point. His and Magimel’s Walter may be a little toned down, but he is still seen for who he really is – a boy filled with anger completely pout of his depth who confused love for the desire to control, own and dominate.

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The Piano Teacher remains my favorite Haneke film and one of my favorite novels.  I saw this film three times in two days on the big screen when it first came to Sydney and immediately went out and bought the book, and so was introduced to my favorite writer. For this reason and many others, it remains one of the most complicated, extreme and fulfilling moments of cinema I have ever had.

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