Understanding Michael Haneke: The Piano Teacher (2001)

I have to say that The Piano Teacher is an interesting specimen in Michael Haneke’s filmography, especially considering the entirety of what came before it, in that it is both a continuation of the journey throughout his longstanding thematic interests and a breath of fresh air at the same time. This is particularly with regard to Haneke’s proclivity towards detaching himself emotionally from the matter at hand and assuming the role of a cynical jester who takes pleasure from the simple act of torturing the viewer, which is almost completely absent from this film. 

In short, this film is a synthesis of Haneke’s staple exploration of the alienation of the wealthy classes with a meditation on control, abuse of power and sexual repression. The resultant cocktail of themes, uncomfortable and at times extremely graphic imagery, and the filmmaker’s characteristic relentlessness in conjuring gravely upsetting scenarios and pressuring the viewers to hold their gaze upon them all add up to an immensely compelling cinematic experience. Bolstered by Isabelle Huppert’s formidable turn in the titular role, which I imagine must have taken a massive emotional toll on her, The Piano Teacher is easily Haneke’s strongest effort I have seen thus far. Perhaps it is so in some part thanks to the simple fact the story hasn’t been concocted by Haneke himself, but adapted from a novel. Maybe this way his obsessive tendencies that can easily get out of control and take over the film were somewhat tempered by basic narrative constraints set out by the source material. Therefore, the entire film thrives on its focus. 

This organic fixation characterizing the tone of the film enabled Haneke to cut methodically and deeply into the supple flesh of the thematic matter at hand. There’s nothing haphazard, opportunistic or superficial in the way the narrative dissects the contemporary bourgeoisie. This is a truly intellectual satire aimed at the wealthiest classes self-imprisoned in their ivory towers. Naturally, there is a lot more one can dig out of this story, such as a commentary on rivalry, gender dynamics, upbringing of children, a futile pursuit of excellence and much more. However, it is predominantly a study on power and control. I think this is the most succinct and at the same time a strangely comprehensive way to describe the world inhabited by the central triangle of characters – Erika, her over-protective and controlling mother, and her young confident pupil. The way these three people interact, how they abuse one another and attempt to assume complete authoritarian control over every aspect of the others’ lives makes for a mesmerizing viewing experience akin to an experiment where three different apex predators have been caged together. And Haneke puts us right up against the railing so that we’d see in gruesome detail what will happen when the first blood is drawn. It is utterly fascinating, engrossing just as it is fundamentally revolting and extremely difficult to process using the toolbox of traditional morality. 

All in all, The Piano Teacher is an unforgettable experience, but in the way public executions are unforgettable; it will sear into your frontal lobe and forever affect the basic mechanics of brain function. It is a disgusting cesspool of themes very few filmmakers dare to explore in such gruesome detail and with such a lack of restraint, which is why Haneke managed to achieve something singular here. He turned a satire that otherwise could be dismissed as a regurgitation of a well-known truism that rich people are weird into a psychological horror of immeasurable potential – arousing, degrading, gross and magnetizing all at the same time.

Originally Published on Letterboxd

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