Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 4
 Issue 1 
8 Mar
2004

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Michael Haneke's La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001) AUSTRIA / FRANCE
The horror of the middle class
Michael Haneke's La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001)

Like many a horror film, La Pianiste shows that the most unsettling monstrosities have their origins in everyday middle-class life. Christopher Sharrett looks at how Haneke portrays bourgeois sexuality in its most scary form.


Michael Haneke's La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001) is a work of contemporary horror, its sensibility rooted less in genre (although this is relevant) than in a line of US and European cinema locating mental breakdown and social disorder precisely at the heart of Western bourgeois patriarchal civilization. Like Michelangelo Antonioni's Il Deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964), it suggests that the sensitive human subject, especially the female, cannot thrive in the repressive contemporary industrial/postindustrial world. Like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), it develops the notion of the fractured subject, the "monster," as product of bourgeois family life.

La Pianiste's horror is within its understanding that mental illness flows axiomatically from commonly held assumptions about this life, conceived as an immutable, irreducible standard. La Pianiste's connection to the horror genre may be principally because it shares the genre's postmodern realization that the gothic is no longer relevant to notions of the monstrous, except in the use of a few stylistic conventions; the essence of horror is within human relationships and the collapse of a false social order about which we are in great denial.

The film has a few companion pieces within the European cinema, including Gaspar Noé's remarkable Irréversible (2002), whose gore effects and descent-into-inferno motif is associated, like La Pianiste, with the crumbling of the veneer of Western civilization. Noé's modern horror story, bracketed by Mahler and Beethoven, concerns patriarchal sexuality's association with the monstrous, and the ineffectuality of the European intellectual tradition in even a rethinking of the terrible assumptions regarding race, class, ,gender and sexuality that undergird this civilization. Indeed, Irréversible is almost an apocalyptic coda to La Pianiste.

Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert), like Norman Bates, can be regarded as a psychotic monster only if we disregard the basic Freudian tenet of the pervasiveness of neurosis in civilization, a "discontent" that can be measured in degrees of its appearance but whose pandemic quality must be seen as a given. The film's focus on Walter's (Benoit Magimel) definitions of the normal, his idea of romantic love, and the corresponding construction of Erika as monstrous Other (which, of course, Haneke undermines) are central to the film's horrific vision.

As in the best works of cinematic horror (Shadow of a Doubt, Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salò), the normal bourgeois world is the locus of the horrific, the monsters of such works not arcane aberrations but logical culminations to a culture of repression and oppression. Walter Klemmer may be a fascist beast (he seems so in Elfriede Jelinek's novel), but he is "normalized" by Haneke.

Michael Haneke's La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001)Hints even of state fascism appear in Walter. His conjoining of engineering with high culture refers us to the Frankfurt School (Erika coincidentally mentions Adorno's comments on Schumann relative to her mental breakdown), in particular the idea of the enlightened, technocratic mind inevitably leading to fascism. Fascist associations are hinted at iconographically in Walter's black and red hockey uniform, but his rape of Erika just after his locker room tomfoolery with the hockey team (the repressed gay underpinning of the male group has been central to understanding both fascism and patriarchy) and his savage assault on Erika make such allusions necessarily peripheral.

Unlike the sexual politics of a work such as Bernardo Bertolucci's Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, 1992), La Pianiste creates not an elegy for relationships flowing from the solipsism of the angst-ridden, dethroned male, but a critique of the dynamics making gender relations impossible under current assumptions, necessarily linking eros with thanatos in a manner hardly involved in late 20th-century existential abstraction.

Unlike Liliana Cavani's Il Portiere di notte (The Night Porter, 1974), which (rather parodically) suggests that sadomasochism is part of the twisted social contract of fascism, La Pianiste needs little reference to past or present forms of state power to establish sadomasochism as an essential form of exchange (with one partner the master, the other the servant, with roles occasionally reversed as desire itself a prized commodity and symbol of power) under patriarchal capitalist society. As a work of the post-feminist, seemingly "liberated" age, La Pianiste asks if there are now avenues of resistance, or a genuine oppositional culture to patriarchal capitalism's normalcies, and if some postmodern adversarial interventions—a fixation of some cultural critics—can occur short of revolutionary change.

Erika's self-mutilation of her genitals forces a reconsideration of the neo-primitive culture of scarification, tattooing and other body modification not as adversarial gesture of a new counterculture but simply another (rather obvious) manifestation of alienation. Her mutilations have less to do with the romanticized cult of self-destruction of extreme dance/rock band Nine Inch Nails and industrial culture ("I hurt myself today...") than with an understanding that eros cannot exist in a culture that insists on the reduction of the self to base matter, the heart of the death-wish that Freud couldn't adequately define, since he failed to see it in political terms.

Michael Haneke's La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001)The film's political statement may be centered in these moments. Minus any avenue of authentic expression (and Erika's art is as limiting in its social circumscription as her household, with its wretched, phallicized mother), the subject must self-destruct. A social world as constrained and stultifying as Erika's, for all its pretenses of democratic enlightenment, destroys the atomized, monadic self. Her voyeurism and fixation on pornography is the questionable appropriation of the male "gaze" that much feminist theory—progressive and reactionary—has assumed is central to patriarchal assumptions and authority.

Erika's gaze suggests only the further disempowerment of the female by capitalist civilization, and capital's endless ability (absent structures for revolutionary change) to absorb any adversarial tendencies. Haneke's view of porn as a safety valve of a repressed civilization rather than an emblem of at least a potential for radical change seems to stake his position in such debates fairly clearly. While the sale of porn in shopping malls may suggest Austria's relative freedom of expression, it is difficult to overlook the image of porn as another false need of consumer culture.

A lonely journey

Schubert, Erika's ostensible link to sanity and a liberating element of the cultural past, is absorbed and obliterated by the consumer capitalist world that encourages competition. If Erika is not as hyperbolic a character as Professor Rath in Josef von Sternberg's Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel, 1930) (there are more than a few relevant links between the two films, especially in the misperceptions engendered by romantic love), she is certainly a postmodern extension of his assumptions. Her tyrannical instructions and humiliations of her students both cover the fury contained in her own repression and enforce a culture where learning and growth are matters of rewards and punishments, guaranteeing the neurotic civilization of which she is such a representative figure. Tropes from horror regularly appear in the teacher-student relationship, in particularly the gruesome assault on Anna, and the reference by her mother to "chopped-off hands," the same remark made by the cruel, demented mother in the film's unnerving, violent opening moments.

Schubert, and classical music overall, have been noted by Haneke as part of the film's "very Austrian situation." Winterreise may be seen as the film's theme, or La Pianiste as its cinematic rendering, but perhaps only if we view the film as a caustic critique of romanticism and art's salvific function. Winterreise's is Romanticism's most brilliant exploration of alienation, its significance fully understood by the refined sensibilities of Erika and her young suitor Walter. But Schubert's song cycle is less an annotation of Erika's tragedy than it is a sketch of such art's inability to comment on the realized alienation of the postmodern world—the 17th song, "Im Dorfe," appears on the soundtrack as Erika sniffs dried semen in a discarded tissue as she is confined in a dark video booth (she is always trapped in a male domain, always effecting a haughty male posture). The Winterreise of La Pianiste may contain a Romanticism closer to Coleridge or Mary Shelley than Mueller/Schubert, more filled with ghastliness than mere anguish.

Erika's citation of Adorno at the recital is hardly ironic; the Frankfurt School informed us that simple awareness of the deficiencies of capitalist civilization is hardly a form of resistance, a point made clear by Erika's deterioration and by Walter's brutalization of her, even after his protesting, as if to foreground his refined intelligence, that Schubert "brought [them] together." The utopian aspect of European culture is obliterated by Walter, the fascist worldview realized outside of state power. More telling regarding Erika's relationship to music as her one pathway to liberation is music's regular connections to notions of the father.

The mention of Adorno is connected to Erika's late parent, whose death in an asylum sets up a "sins of the father" dynamic enforced by Erika's tortured artist veneer that only further propels her need to oppress herself and those most vulnerable in her ambit. The potentially liberating elements of musical history beyond the actual compositions on the soundtrack, such as Schubert's gay sexuality, have no relevance to Erika. Indeed, the scowling portraits from the classical pantheon that adorn her studio suggest that she lives under the considering, disapproving male gaze of the Western world's past.

The film's comment on the compatibility of oppression with postmodernity, an era that has supposedly dispensed with the univocal voice of patriarchal oppression, is in Walter and Erika's first sexual confrontation in the Kubrickian bathroom of the stately Vienna Conservatory. The bathroom, with its rigid geometry and antiseptic cleanliness, associate not just masturbation but sex itself with the notion of "secret sin," the couple's encounter an expressionist caricature of the preamble to the terrible game-playing of romantic courtship.

The sickness of romance

Walter's predatory aspect, is first sketched in his leap to the top of the bathroom stall, interrupting Erika's privacy (suggesting his anal-sadistic quality?) as he unlocks the stall door. Walter, rather than the apparently authoritarian Erika, is always the dominant presence. The oral/anal aspects of their sexual encounter suggest the culture's policing of sexual behavior that both prevents sexual development (except within the sanctioned heterosexual trajectory) and defines anal/oral gratification as infantile. Rather than a regression to a free, unrestrained stage of sexual development, the exchange is a logical extension of the body-policing that ensures repression.

Walter tracks down Erika after the incident of the broken glass (during which Erika takes pathetic revenge on a supposed emotional rival), following her to the bathroom, interrupting her as she presumably sits on the toilet. Whether she is masturbating or excreting is irrelevant, the point being her lack of control over even her body, her minimal escape from the world and her constricted being. Walter polices her communication with her body, and in so doing enforces his sexual rules, eventually cruelly berating her sexual orientations, finally nearly killing her for them (he reminds her it's partially her fault).

Walter's commitment to romantic love gives him the confidence that his is the mature, healthy sexual posture, while Erika, is "sick," a castrating threat (especially as she momentarily painfully grasps his penis) that he briefly tolerates out of the assumption that his love—and corresponding demands—will conquer all. His playful, if rather manic, run from the bathroom back into the conservatory, the camera connecting the refined, balanced enlightenment world of classical art to the always-forbidden and concealed body functions represented by the lavatory, foreshadows the vengefulness of his final assaults and eventual casual dismissal of Erika which is also, it should be said, a dismissal of the best aspects of classical culture embodied in Erika for all her damage by bourgeois civilization.

The film's pivotal horrific moment is, of course, Walter's reading of Erika's letter in which she suddenly reveals herself as a vulnerable, desiring figure. Erika's internalizing the need for self-destruction engendered by her repression culminates in her letter, a form of speaking truth to power that Walter finds abhorrent. Walter then can no longer remain the sensitive potential swain as he assumes the role always nascent in the narrative. Walter becomes a perfect microcosmic representative of Louis Althusser's ideological state apparatuses.

In the terrifying scene before the final rape at Erika's apartment, Erika encounters Walter as a uniformed figure among the joking male group of the hockey team, his brutalizing, enforced oral sex carried out between metal clothing racks that suggest barrack bunks (Auschwitz? a NATO base?). Erika's wretched flight across the ice rink is a postmodern Winterreise, a very truncated winter journey with no stops for Romanticism's introspection, instead the flight of the horror film's "final girl" truly disempowered by the monstrous normal.

La Pianiste is a summary statement on the collapse of gender relations in late capitalist civilization, while interrogating critically Raymond Williams' notion of the residual, figured in the greatness of Europe's cultural past. Considered by many a dead object (rumor has it that record companies will soon cease new recordings of classical music), Haneke insists on music's relevance to our moment. Culture's ineffectuality against—or complicity in—the devastated emotional landscape of the film may be La Pianiste's greatest source of horror, certainly its most challenging question.

Christopher Sharrett

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About the author

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication at Seton Hall University. He is currently editing with Barry Keith Grant a new edition of Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film.


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