Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Piano Teacher

*Michael Haneke*French*125m*2001*

Erika Kohut is a woman in her forties, a respected professor at the music conservatory in Vienna, living with her mother. The father is a mental patient admitted to an asylum (we never meet him) who dies in the course of the narrative. The film depicts a "sado-masochistic" relationship of Erika and a student, the athletic and musically gifted Walter. The film veers between the beauty of the music, and the hard to watch patches of mutilation and perversion.

The core of the film is the deeply scarred, almost pathological, yet artistic, personality of Erika. Her commanding, icy, unapproachable and intellectual persona hides a depth of anguish which cannot perhaps be painted without the metaphor of blood. She injures the hand of one of her students by hiding broken glass in her coat pocket, preventing her from playing on the piano for some months. This is a punishment for being friendly with Walter. She mutilates herself with a razor blade. She has a love-hate relation with her mother, and slapping each other seems to be almost routine, followed by sobbing reconciliation. The mournfulness of Schubert, in particular the following lines, which are repeated several times, are perhaps a leitmotiv for the film:

Bark me away, you waking dogs!
Let me not find rest in the hours of slumber!
I am finished with all dreaming
Why should I linger among sleepers?

Bellt mich nur fort, ihr wachen Hunde,
Laßt mich nicht ruh'n in der Schlummerstunde!
Ich bin zu Ende mit allen Träumen.

Was will ich unter den Schläfern säumen?

She reprimands a student for her piano performance," The range of Schubert is from a scream to a whisper, not loud to soft." The film moves from the bewitching whispers of the music and the repressed screams, born out of decades of suffocation and suffering in the the prison of her family, which are not hard to surmise.

And the finale--self discovery, atonement?

Haneke belongs to the post war generation of Europe and perhaps this is a statement about the contradictions between the grandeur of culture and the realities of recent history, and the spiritual sterility of "civilised" humanity. When asked his opinion about modern Western civilization, Gandhi famously quipped that he thought it a good idea.
Roger Ebert's review
Essay: Hari Kunzru
Interview with Haneke
Im Dorfe


Seongyong Cho said...

The movie is cold but fascinating study on twisted human mind whose desire is ultimately blocked by its repulsion. She thinks she can get her wish from manipulating her student like piano, but human beings are not pianos at all and neither are they. Very uncomfortable but still intriguing.

S. M. Rana said...

@Seongyong Cho

It seems as though the absent psychotic father is an important element in the film, which is a character study of Erika, the highly intelligent but twisted product of a severely disturbed family environment. Haneke is able to portray her compassionately. Erika is cold and seems feelingless, but her eyes seem to moisten, and the hint of a smile hovers on her lips. Some resemblance to the film Monster. I am sure her suffering was lightened by her passion for Schubert, and her identification with this composer. I also had a strong personal liking for the songs of Schubert, two examples, Erlkonig and Der Tod und die Madchen are here . Another movie which used Schubert's music was Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden.

Anonymous said...

A twisted movie but very well handled and it never dips into the excesses that seem to characterize so many great directors these days (von Trier, Winterbottom, etc)