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Analyzing Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher through the lens of psychoanalysis

The piano teacher

Reader Discretion Advised: This film review contains explicit content and discusses scenes of violence and sexual assault. The text explores sensitive themes that may be distressing to some readers. Please proceed with caution and discretion.

Based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Elfriede Jelinek, Haneke presents a psychosexual drama in this film that is deeply unsettling and depicts the heavy price his protagonist has to pay to fulfil her unbridled sexual desires. The plot revolves around an Austrian piano professor named Erika Kohut, who lives a double life: one as a stern music professor who is so busy criticizing her pupils that she hardly encourages them to excel in their craft, and the other as a sexually repressed woman who channels her loneliness through her active participation in paraphilia, voyeurism, sadomasochistic fetishes, and self-mutilation. Erika lives in a small apartment with her overbearing and overprotective mother, who is partly responsible for her distorted psyche.

Considering Lacanian theory on psychosexual development, which is divided into the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic Order or the "big Other," it can be deduced that Erika's overpossessive mother never allowed her to properly enter the Imaginary Order, also known as the "mirror stage," where a child looking at their reflection in the mirror for the first time begins to recognize that their body is separate from the world and their mother. However, in Erika's case, her mother always held her back, wanting to confine her to the Real Order, where infants generally possess no desires or needs. Erika was merely a pawn in her mother's hands. However, since she was a fully developed individual who had gone through the Symbolic Order, where a child becomes familiar with the world of language which establishes desire in their heart, Erika and her domineering mother often engaged in nasty catfights whenever she rebelled against her, asserting her desires. Yet, in the end, she was always unnerved and therefore fulfilled her desires in hideous ways.

Erika was a highly-regarded pianist, yet she never received the acclaim she deserved. Perhaps her inner turmoil, which prevented her from knowing what she truly desired from life, held her back. She was engulfed by chaos, ironically masked by a perpetually cold and blank expression. Erika's world lacked color until the arrival of Walter Klemmer, a young engineer captivated by music, particularly the piano. In Haneke's interpretation, while Erika and Walter had previously met and exchanged words at a recital hosted by the parents (the Blonskij couple) of Erika's student, it was a chance encounter that truly bewitched Walter. This encounter sparked his desire to learn from her, leading him to enroll as her student at the conservatory. Walter's knock at the door during Erika's supervision of a concert rehearsal marked a pivotal moment. This event not only signalled a gradual shift in Erika's monotonous life but also unlocked the hidden chambers of her body and mind.

Walter’s pursuit of Erika as his lover and her rejection of his advances did not last long. As the narrative progressed, we saw them engage in an unhealthy sexual relationship where Erika always held the upper hand. The frustration of being constantly dominated by her mother found its release in Erika's unusual sexual desires. According to psychoanalysis, it is the lack that makes women vulnerable. In Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory, the symbolic representation of the phallus, the phallic symbol, represents male generative powers. Lacan, in his seminal essay titled "The Signification of the Phallus," further elaborated on the difference between "being" and "having" the phallus. Men are positioned as men because they possess the phallus, while women, not having it, are seen to "be" the phallus. This lack in women makes them view themselves as less powerful, which may justify Erika's sexual dominance over Walter.

Erika very carefully jotted down all her fantasies in a letter addressed to Walter, which repulsed him and made him realize that this relationship had no future. While Walter always tried to subjugate Erika sexually, she resorted to her sadomasochistic fantasies, utterly disgusting and confusing Walter. Violence was depicted in the film subtly only twice: once when Erika tried to mutilate her vagina to experience sadistic pleasure, and the other when, after slipping into an empty coatroom and smashing a glass, she hid the shards inside one of her students' (Anna's) pockets, scarring her right hand and preventing her from playing at the jubilee concert at the conservatory. However, Haneke's depiction of violence intensifies in the entire sequence when Walter arrives at Erika's apartment at midnight, fulfilling her grotesque desires as mentioned in the letter by brutally attacking her - "This is what you wanted, isn't it?". Locking her mother away in the bedroom, Erika was ultimately brutally beaten and raped by Walter. It was quite unexpected for Walter to commit such a heinous crime, given the way he was presented before in the plot as a tender and caring young boy. But in Haneke's films, young, vivacious boys are always deceptive, much like the sadistic friends in Funny Games. Walter Klemmer's acts of violence apparently seemed motiveless but had underlying reasons that can be traced back to Freudian theory.

In the phallic stage of psychosexual development, when the male becomes aware of the differences between male and female genitalia, he assumes that the female's penis has been removed and always gets haunted by the fact that his rival will cut his penis off. In the metaphorical sense, this castration anxiety refers to the fear of being insignificant in front of females. Throughout the film, in several sequences, Walter was sexually subdued by Erika, prompting his castration anxiety, ultimately leading him to prove his virility, as evident in his utterance - "You can't humiliate a man that way. It's not possible." Walter was a young, handsome man whose desires were satiated until he came across a woman who humiliated his desires and turned his whole world upside down.

Throughout the film, there is no mention of Erika's father, except for one scene where she reveals he died after a long stay in a psychiatric institution. Her world, devoid of a father figure, left a void that plagued Erika. This lack of a strong male influence may have contributed to her sadomasochistic fetishes, where she instructed Walter to sexually dominate her. The absence of a paternal role model could be interpreted as an Electra complex, leading her to desperately seek a masculine, authoritarian figure in Walter, oblivious to the potential consequences of her actions.

As soon as Erika's fantasies were fulfilled, she realized that it was nothing more than a nightmare. It would be easy to blame Erika for the doom she brought upon herself, but then she was a woman whose vulnerabilities were exploited in the most atrocious manner. The ending indeed leaves one startled, which perfectly served Haneke's purpose. He made us witness an erotica that gradually turns into a complex sexual battle for control. Erika's fate remained undecided, and in the end, we cannot help but feel sorry for her. Through her character, Haneke wanted to convey how acts of sexual suppression ultimately lead to acts of violence and how, as Erika herself states, "art is no consolation" at times for an artist, especially when their unquenchable desires hinder their journey to become an artist.


Srilekha Mitra

Srilekha Mitra, a cinephile who finds solace in poetry and the world of film, football, and food, pens this piece. When reality bites, she takes refuge in the power of words.

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