Piano Teacher, The (2001): Haneke’s Haunting Tale of Repressed Sexuality

Michael Haneke directed The Piano Teacher, a disturbing tale of a middle-aged, unmarried woman who is in a state of emotional and sexual turmoil, splendidly played by Isabelle Huppert. 

Her inner demons come to the surface when she begins a sadomasochistic relationship with her young and seemingly docile student.

The film is based on the 1983 novel The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004.

World premiering at the 2001 Cannes Film Fest, the movie won the Grand Jury Prize, and the two leads, Isabelle Huppert and Benoît Magimel, earned the acting kudos.

Huppert is perfectly cast as Erika Kohut, a piano professor at a Vienna music conservatory who resides in an apartment with her domineering elderly mother (Annie Girardot); we learn that her late father had spent a lengthy time at an asylum.

Despite Erika’s calm and assured manner, it turs out to be only a façade.  She is in fact a sexually repressed woman, who engages in all kinds of taboos, voyeurism, sadomasochistic fetishes, and self-mutilation.

At a recital, Erika meets Walter Klemmer, a young aspiring engineer who also plays piano, and the two share an appreciation for composers Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert.

When Walter attempts to apply to conservatory, his audition impresses all the other professors.  But Erika, though visibly moved by his playing, votes against him, citing his strange interpretation of Schubert’s Andantino.

Despite this, Walter is admitted as Erika’s pupil and their sessions begin.  When Erika witnesses Walter socializing with Anna, she breaks a glass, hiding the shards in Anna’s coat pockets. Anna’s injured right hand botches her aspirations to play at the jubilee concert.

Walter pursues Erika into a lavatory after she secretly injured Anna. he begins to kiss her passionately, and she responds by repeatedly hurting, humiliating and frustrating him. She performs fellatio on him, but abruptly stops when he does not abide by her orders.

Later at the conservatory, Erika feigns sympathy to Anna’s mother, claiming that only she can substitute for Anna in the upcoming school concert.

Walter desires Erika, but she is only willing to engage if he satisfies her masochistic fantasies. She puts into writing her wishful acts, but the list repulses him.

She later apologizes and the two engage in sex in the janitor’s closet; however, Erika vomits after Walter attempts to penetrate her. Later that night, Walter arrives at Erika’s apartment and attacks her in a desirable mode.  He locks her mother away in her bedroom, and then beats and brutally rapes Erika.

Erika brings a knife to the concert where she is scheduled to substitute for Anna.  Walter arrives with his family, and greets her politely.  But just as the concert is about to begin, Erika stabs herself in the shoulder and exits the hall.

It’s not the kind of satisfying conclusion (let alone resolution) that viewers expects.  But the material is so eccentric, and the central character is so plagued by inner demons that there could not be any other closure.

Haneke has often been attracted to emotionally intense accounts of harrowing and deviant “human” behavior, in both normal and crisis situations.  He is particularly good in building up a sustained tension when he directs a fearless actress like Huppert, who renders one of the career-best performances.  It’s impossible to imagine the film without her