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NEW! See rare interview footage with Michael Haneke in our Film Archive
No pain, no gain - Interview with director
In one disturbing scene in Michael Haneke's film The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert sits on the edge of a bath, lifts up her skirt and points a mirror between her legs. Then she takes a razor blade and starts to cut herself. A trickle of blood runs down the side of the bath. Just then we hear her mother calling, "Dinner's ready!" "I'm coming!" replies Huppert.
His implication is that, confronted by the intolerable, the audience desperately seeks something to lighten the mood. There are many scenes in The Piano Teacher that provoke such reactions. The Austrian director seems to revel in prompting viewers to worry about their own behaviour as much as the film characters'. Why do we giggle when Huppert's character hands her lover a note detailing her masochistic sexual demands?
For a creator of such disturbing films, Haneke, 58, is unexpectedly light-hearted. He sits on the terrace of his hotel at Cannes, giggling his replies through his grey beard. One can't imagine this man making Benny's Video (1992), in which a boy who has watched a video of a pig being slaughtered films himself committing murder. Nor Funny Games (1997), a film in which a family are tortured, then killed in their own holiday chalet. Nor Code Unknown, starring Juliette Binoche as a Parisian actor who, in a cringe-making moment, is roughed up on a train while the spectators in her carriage do nothing to help. Nor The Piano Teacher - his best yet.
In all his films, Haneke makes the viewer's role problematic, even perverse. The Piano Teacher is based on the autobiographical novel of Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, a misanthropic polemicist. Like the central character in Haneke's film, Jelinek was brought up by a tyrannical, middle-class Catholic mother who wanted her to become a concert pianist. Like the character, too, Jelinek's father died in a psychiatric institution. But while Jelinek's novel is a denunciation of Austria's petit bourgeois musical culture and a raging moral ity tale of a repressed Austrian woman, Haneke's adaptation strives to say nothing particular about his home country.
In the film he deals with themes of voyeurism, sadomasochism and cultural oppression in a manner that is much less judgmental. "When my first film The Seventh Continent was presented here 12 years ago, non-Austrian spectators would come up to me and say, 'Is Austria that terrible?', whereas for me it wasn't about Austria but about highly industrialised cultures everywhere. It's easy for the spectator to take these elements that should disturb them and that I want them to grapple with andsay, 'I don't want to deal with them - they don't concern me.' It would have been too easy for them to blame Viennese musical culture for Erika's problems, so that's why I didn't want to exaggerate Viennese musical elements."
That said, Viennese piano music is everywhere in the film - especially Schubert's late piano sonatas. So it's no surprise to learn that Haneke is a music lover, who gives his films a musical structure. "The choice of music was one of the most enjoyable parts of making the film ," he says. "But I have too much respect for music to simply throw it in my films, which is why music rarely comes up in them. Usually music is used to hide a film's problems. Here music becomes a part of the film itself. Some of the pieces are specified in the novel itself - Bach's double concerto for two klaviers for instance. In the novel Erika Kohut says her two favourite composers are Schubert and Schumann, but it was up to me to choose which pieces to use."
In The Piano Teacher, Erika Kohut is a piano teacher in her early forties
who not only still lives with her mother (a great performance by Annie
Girardot) but also shares the same bedroom. Her relationship with her
mother is disturbing - they fight throughout - and she behaves maliciously
- placing broken glass in a rival's coat pocket. But her sexuality is
the most problematic thing in the film. She visits porn cinemas and peep
shows and her repressed sexuality is a mixture of morbid voyeurism and
The part of the student, Walter Klemmer (Magimel), is a difficult one because, by the end of the film, Walter has given Erika most of the things she asked for in her letter. And yet, though this involves a great deal of violence, the viewer is encouraged to understand his behaviour. As Haneke explains, "In the novel Jelinek keeps calling Klemmer an arsehole. You can do that in a novel but in a film if you are told that a character is an arsehole, then in five seconds you see how the picture is going to end. "It was important to leave Walter as an open character for possible identification. I try to leave my films as open as possible. It's up to the spectator to grapple with what he sees and try to build an explanation."
At the end of the film, Erika Kohut is beaten and sexually assaulted. Are we to think that she welcomes her fate? Worse, that she deserves it? That her attacker is justified? Haneke refuses to give any easy answers. "You have to interpret that yourself. I allow the spectator to finish the film in his or her head. Were I to provide an interpretation, that would be counterproductive." He giggles once more and then trots off across the sunny Cannes terrace.