Modern Classic Films: The Piano Teacher (2001) by Michael Haneke
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In the first in a new series on modern classic films, Barnaby Walter looks at Michael Haneke's disturbing film The Piano Teacher. Michael Haneke has long been viewed as a manipulative filmmaker; a director who channels his audience’s unease and betrays their trust. He assaults the viewer’s sense of decency and makes them question the definitions of right and wrong. The Piano Teacher is perhaps one of Haneke’s toughest films to watch, dwelling on the darker aspects of human nature, and the things some people will do to achieve sexual satisfaction. I am talking about sadomasochistic sexual activity and voyeurism. The sexual masochist in this film is a piano teacher and a professor at a music school in Vienna. Her name is Erika, and she enjoys feeling pain. In one scene she mutilates her genitals with a razorblade while sitting on the edge of a bath. We see the blood run down the sides of the tub as she slides the razor into herself. It’s a horrible scene, one that came almost eight years before Lars von Trier directed Charlotte Gainsbourg to do similar damage with a pair of rusty scissors in Antichrist. However, in this moment we are forced to confront our feelings about this woman. Are we repulsed by her? Do we pity her for what her sexual compulsions make her do? Are we angry at being made to watch such aberrant behaviour? It goes without saying that Haneke doesn’t give any easy answers to these difficult questions. Even if one sets her secret desires to one side, Erika is still far from what most viewers would class as normal. She is nearing forty, but shares a flat with her mother who nags and moans at her when she returns home late. She may have reached a level of eminence in her profession, but Erika is consistently cruel to her pupils. At one point she puts pieces of broken glass in the pocket of a young pianist’s coat. This disfigures one of the girl’s hands, and we get the sense Erika has derived great pleasure from this bloody result. The scene itself, where the young girl cuts her hand on the shards of glass, is a masterpiece in unsettling human horror, and its most disturbing aspect comes from its surprising and sadistic sense of humour.
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