Haneke’s The Piano Teacher and The New French Extremity

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Cinema is full of boundary pushing figures and movements. Throughout film history, in content and in form, there have always been the cutting-edge auteurs pushing the medium to the further innovation. The logical progression of these experimental artists manifests itself in the, debatably still ongoing, New French Extremity movement. Beginning just before the turn of the new millennium, The New French Extremists sought to challenge the prevailing social structure in France at the time with brutally honest depictions of drugs, sex, and violence on film, as well as experimental and often abrasive film-making techniques. This style of filmmaking is seemingly contradictory to the disciplined and mostly static camera used by Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke. However, his 2001 film, The Piano Teacher can be contextualized as a part of the New French Extremity movement. Some scholars already define the New French Extremity as the New European Extremity, so I will not be placing importance on the geography of this movement but rather the techniques and goals of the movement.

The New French Extremists are wholly unique in their approach to filmmaking; however, this new wave of French provocateurs was not created in a vacuum. In fact, they are descendants to past French traditions, the earliest of which being France’s most depraved theater during and after World War I, Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol. The Grand Guignol was a church building that was converted into a theater that produced nearly twelve hundred plays in its 65 years of operation. The Grand Guignol’s plays started as dark melodrama but eventually gave way to full blown horror. Favorite subjects included mutilation, insanity, paralysis, live burial, and the gouging out of eyeballs. They developed extensive special effects methodology to make these horrors appear on stage as realistically as possible. Often playwrights and directors would measure the success of their productions by how many people left or fainted once the play was over (Rugnetta, The Horrors of the Grand Guignol: Crash Course Theater #35). In addition to the Grand Guignol’s productions as influences on the New French Extremity, they also draw on the writings of French actor, writer, and play director, Antonin Artuad, specifically his 1938 book The Theatre and Its Double. Artuad described a type of theater that assaulted the senses, that relied less on narrative and language than it did on spectacle, what he would later coin, “The Theater of Cruelty.” To directly quote Artuad, the Theatre of Cruelty was an experience, “…in which violent physical images crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectator seized by the theatre as by a whirlwind of higher forces.” (Rugnetta, Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty: Crash Course Theater #43). But of course, these are films not plays so naturally these comparisons are relatively limited, and do not account for the specific mediums involved in film. This leads us to possibly the most influencial filmmaking movement of all time, The French New Wave. Key figures in the French New Wave include Jena Luc-Godard, Jacques Demy, Agnes Varda, Chris Marker, and François Truffaut. These pioneers of film redefined filmmaking during the 1960s. Their signature style, while varied, employed frequent and more extreme camera movement, breaking continuity intentionally with intrusive editing, and an insatiable urge to depict life as they knew it, leading to the development of the auteur style of filmmaking (Wigley).

The New French Extremity was initially a term used as a pejorative against a selection of turn of the century French films from filmmakers like Catherine Breillat, Alexandre Aja, Claire Denis, Marina de Van, Pascal Laugier, and, arguably most infamous, Gaspar Noe. On the surface these films seem like little more than an attempt to shock audiences with gratuitous drugs, sex, and horrifically depicted violence. However, there is lot more going on to these films besides the utter shock value for which they are most reviled. Films in the New French Extremity are always used as messaging devices for their directors and writers. Almost every feature film attached to the New French Extremity has a near one-to-one allegorical reading, as a response to the oppression of certain groups in French culture at the time of their creation. Even more broadly, these films were a rejection of the progressive, bourgeoise image that many in France like to paint of themselves. These groups the filmmakers decided to focus on inclusion of the LGBT+ community, women, the poor, racial minorities, and immigrants (Alaniz). Claire Denis’s blood-soaked 2001 film Trouble Every Day is an excellent example of how these auteurs used shock to convey their messaging. Trouble Every Day follows a seductress who lures men with the promise of sex, which she delivers on before violently and disgustingly dismembering and eating them. These scenes are presented seductively, violently and with immense detail, not merely to disgust and shock viewers, but rather to force the audience to engage with the film in more detail. Denis is pushing the audience to think critically as to why they are being subjugated to such disturbing content. This is all in service of the message; to eventually lead the audience to understand Denis is trying to make comment on how closely tied intimacy and dominance are in sexual relationships. Furthermore, how easily, without proper consent between the two parties, things can turn sour (Hoff). The unsettling content always serves a purpose — to provide a progressive message to the audience.

Michael Haneke is an Austrian writer-director and is frequently hailed as one of the greatest working directors today. His films are usually stark, unflinching looks into reality, however uncomfortable that reality might make his audience. Unlike his French counterparts, he does not like to move his camera. He implements the use of long takes and tracking shots, but nothing too flashy and distracting. One of Haneke’s most striking aspects of his filmmaking is the lack of a musical score. This creates an uncomfortable and even unsettling atmosphere; however, all of his creative decisions are in service of a larger point Haneke likes to make with his films. Haneke never wants to emotionally manipulate his audience. His reserved camera movements, lack of score, and intense narratives are all used to cut through what audiences expect from a film. Of course, he did not start with all of these director specific trademarks in his first films. Haneke honed his skills in television, directing 6 television movies before his first studio effort in 1989. However, he did not begin releasing studio films consistently until 1997, with his scathing critique of movie violence, Funny Games. Shortly afterwards he released Code Unknown, and then in 2001 released The Piano Teacher. This film marked new territory for Haneke in more ways than one. Most notably it was his first ever adapted screenplay. The original novel by Elfriede Jelinek was initially published in 1983 as a semi-autobiographical story about her own sexual introspection. While there quite a few production delays and false starts with other filmmakers, it eventually fell to Haneke, and he agreed to direct, only if French cinema darling, Isabelle Huppert would star. She agreed having declined a role in Funny Games just a few years previously, due to the intensity of the role. Though she later admitted she had accepted the role without properly reading the script, Haneke and Huppert would develop a longstanding professional relationship in the years following.

The Piano Teacher follows the story of Erika Kohut, a demanding and self-serious piano instructor, on her tumultuous journey through her own sexuality. Erika is in her late thirty’s and lives with her aging and overbearing mother. Kohut’s mother is so overbearing that they even sleep in separate beds in the same room directly against each other. Slowly we begin to see how their relationship damages each of them, while getting background about Erika’s sexual repression. At first it seems she just enjoys watching pornography, until she reaches for the trash bin in her viewing booth to breathe in the used semen covered tissues. She later intentionally cuts her vagina with a razor blade, pees next to a car where two others are having sex in an act of voyeurism, and even humiliates and insults a student after seeing him looking at pornography. The tension begins to develop when Erika meets a young engineering student, Walter Klemmer, at a piano recital hosted at a swanky couple’s mansion in Vienna. Erika and Walter briefly discuss their favorite classical composers and what the music of Shubert means to each of them, in a tense and sometimes uncomfortable encounter. Later, Walter plays a Schubert piece for his performance and it is immensely impressive. Walter then applies to be in Erika’s class at her conservatory to get closer to her, which makes Erika uncomfortable. Erika cannot deny Walter’s talents however, and he is admitted to her class despite her initial reservations. At a rehearsal, Erika places the shards of a glass she broke in the pockets of a pupil of hers she has been especially hard on. Directly afterwards, Walter and Erika share an uncomfortable sexual encounter in a public restroom of the concert hall while her student’s wounds are being attended to. After leaving him sexually frustrated, Walter makes multiple attempts to have sex with Erika, which she declines until he reads a letter she wrote him. In the letter she details her fantasies she would like fulfilled and will only consent to sexual acts through the terms detailed in her graphic letter. In it she requests him to tie her up naked unable to move just outside her mother’s door, force her tongue up his anus, and even hit her in the face and degrade her if she disobeys him. Disgusted, Walter rejects Erika’s attempt at intimacy. This leaves Erika reeling from the shock of such an intense episode, and when she lies down to go to sleep later, she begins violently kissing her mother in the bed next to her, and quickly stopping after her mom begins screaming. The next day Erika tries to repair her relationship with Walter at his hockey practice. She attempts to have a normal sexual encounter with him, but she vomits after briefly performing fellatio on Walter, causing him to get angry at her again and leave. Shortly after, Walter confronts Erika after breaking into her apartment and shoving her mother into her room. He then mocks Erika while quoting her letter as he beats and assaults her, culminating in an intense and brutal sexual assault. On the day of the recital, Erika takes her mother to the concert hall where she encounters her students she abused, the couple who owned the fancy mansion, and Walter, who is accompanied by two younger women. After watching everyone enter the concert from the lobby, she stabs herself in the chest with a kitchen knife, walks out the door, and down the street.

The Piano Teacher is an incredibly thematically, dense film, like all of Haneke’s work. In its most basic reading, Haneke is commenting on the nature of sex and violence, and how similar they are, however uncomfortable that might make you feel. Both are primal acts, at times seemingly instinctual, that happen quickly, often without much forethought, and ultimately, have tremendous consequences. However, I feel like this reading is a little anemic, as the text of the film is more wide-reaching in its commentary. Haneke takes aim at patriarchal societal structures, sexual taboos, and even the over-commercialized consumer culture of Vienna.

The central issue of the narrative is Erika’s masochistic sexual desires. Clearly her mother’s relationship with Erika has hindered her development as a functioning adult. In addition to her mother’s helicopter parenting, she must cope with her father being absent in her life, developing in her a delayed sexual repression from a very early age (Wrye). In addition to this, we also get clued into the type of abuse that Erika most likely had to endure to become a pianist of such astonishing caliber, in the way Erika treats her pupils. Her male pupil she verbally reprimands for looking at pornography is an outlet for her sadistic tendencies that she developed as a child. She calls him a pig and asserts that his wrong notes are because he is too sex crazed to focus on what he is playing. In this action, Erika actually reinforces the patriarchal idea that men need to be forceful, sex driven beings, and further reinforcing the same structure that so forcefully oppressed her sexual maturation. Erika’s abuse towards her female pupil also demonstrates a reinforcement of patriarchal ideas. Right before Erika puts the broken glass into her student’s coat pockets, she observes Walter comforting the student after being scolded earlier. The idea that Erika must compete with other women for the attention of a man is an idea perpetuated in a patriarchal society and once again Erika becomes an enforcing agent of patriarchy.

Through her own engrained patriarchal mindset, her repression is manifested in a desire to engage in simulated violence with Walter. It might seem as though Erika would be submitting to Walter, but in reality, if she had been able to safely and consensually explore these desires it puts all the power in Erika’s hands. By setting the parameters of their sexual relationship, Erika has the power to dictate exactly what happens to her despite having someone else enacting her will (Landwehr). Unfortunately, when these desires are physically realized it is not within the confines of a consensual relationship, and because of this, Erika does not get to express her will over Walter causing the terror of the scene. Additionally, the rape scene reveals how media representations of sex, and sexual relationships are diametrically opposed to actual intimacy. By displaying sex in pornography, the emotional attachment and vulnerability of sex is alienated from the presentation of the physical act. Earlier, the pornography Erika watches is incredibly explicit in detailing both male and female genitalia. In stark contrast, Haneke’s search for truth through his stark unmoving framing of the rape is much more uncomfortable despite showing less explicit content. By removing the emotional intimacy from the actions between Walter and Erika, we are left with only with violence.

Consumerism and specifically the television are also contributing factors in Erika’s voyeuristic urges. Throughout the film, the only things Erika’s mother does besides arguing with her is watch television and eats. Erika’s mother spends her attention focused on strangers on a television, while Erika desperately wants to genuinely connect with her mother. When her mother does not welcome vulnerability into their relationship, Erika develops an interest in watching other’s intimacy. Ostensibly drawing a parallel to watching and consuming mindless entertainment to the sexually devious act of non-consensual voyeurism (Hoff).

However, no one contributing factor to Erika’s perversions are to blame for her untimely end, rather the combination of all these culminate in her final actions. It can be interpreted that after having her consent breached by Walter the only way she can reclaim her own autonomy, in her own mind, is to attempt to take her life. Even then, her expectations do not align with her reality (Thakur). When she stabs herself, she seems confused and annoyed that she is still living long after having predicting she’d be dead. It is in this confused state that she walks out of the concert hall and down the street out of frame. This ambiguity as to Erika’s fate hints at a possible ending where Erika can begin to heal from the trauma this oppressive society caused her. In the words of the author, Elfriede Jelinek, on whether or not the novel was auto-biographical,

“What interests me in a story is its resonance — in this case the unravelling of one of the women who carry on their backs the high culture that Austria so idolizes. An unlived sexuality expressed in voyeurism: A woman who cannot partake in life or in desire. Even the right to watch is a masculine right, the woman is always the one who is watched, never the one who watches. In that respect, to express it psychoanalytically, we are dealing here with a phallic woman who appropriates the male right to watch, and who therefore pays for it with her life.” (Elfriede Jelinek: THE PIANO TEACHER — Interview).

At first glance it seems as though Haneke’s reserved and serious brand of filmmaking could not be more different from the ultra-violent content of the New French Extremity. However, while on the surface they seem almost diametrically opposed, their authorial intent and messaging link them to the point of indistinguishability. Take for example an early hit amongst the New French Extremity cannon, Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone. I Stand Alone follows the foul mouthed, ill tempered butcher as he struggles to get by in the French underclass. Throughout the film the butcher is continually knocked down, not only by those around him, but also the actual social structures around him. Despite him being a loyal patron of the slaughterhouse for the entirety of the time he owned his own butchering operation, he is turned away without so much as a consideration for a position in the future. When the butcher gets rebuffed and rejected from people after he has finally reached his limit, we also get a glimpse of his true disgusting nature. He assaults his pregnant girlfriend by repeatedly punching and kicking her in her face and stomach, resulting in her miscarriage, as well as threatening gun violence while spewing, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic rhetoric. All the while the camera stays unmoving, with smooth continuous editing, until every so often, Noe cuts rapidly as he moves the camera into an extreme close-up accompanied by an ear-bustlingly loud gunshot sound effect (Riding). This is all to say the tone of Noe’s feature length debut is nothing short of oppressive, but it is not without a purpose. Like most New French Extremists at the turn of the century, Noe was incredibly concerned and frustrated by the rise of the far right-wing nationalist party, the National Front. The Nationalist Front was anti-; women’s rights, LGBT+ rights, anti-poor, and anti-immigrant. In other words, they created the conditions for the New French Extremists to react similarly in their filmmaking. All the while, France was attempting to pass itself off to the world as a progressive, bourgeoise safe haven from the rest of the world’s toxic political movements. Noe was having none of that, and even wanted to release his depressing first feature length film instead titled simply, France. This is to say, Noe, was taking sharp aim at the ills of French society as he saw them; rampant homophobia, sexism, and racism caused by right wing rhetoric, whose policies disproportionately and negatively affect the poorest people.

When comparing the messaging and themes of I Stand Alone and The Piano Teacher it becomes much clearer as to how similar The Piano Teacher fits in the New French Extremity movement. Both films target specific societal ills, and deal directly with how those conditions breed evil, repressed, and emotionally damaged people. The Piano Teacher’s intention to challenge patriarchal structures sits snuggly amongst other films in the New French Extremity like Romance (1999) directed by Catherine Breillat; Baise Moi (2000) directed by Virginie Despente and Coralie Trinh Thi; and the aforementioned, Trouble Every Day (2001) directed by Claire Denis. Even the camera direction and cinematography that Haneke uses to maximize discomfort during the rape scene in The Piano Teacher went on to influence one of the most infamous scenes in all of cinema, Gaspar Noe’s nearly ten-minute-long brutal rape scene in his breakout film, Irreversible (2002). Both scenes employ a static camera shooting at a low angle, almost against the ground, to force audiences to reckon with how vile and disgusting the act truly is. All “movie magic” and sterilization of the subject matter is completely stripped away, and the audience is left with unflinching explorations of the depths of human depravity (Eakin). It is a bold and arguably gratuitous stylistic choice, but they are both ultimately effective in communicating their messages, which is what filmmaking is all about.

It is safe to categorize Noe and Haneke as, ‘provocateurs’, which when translated from French more directly is interpreted as a, “provoking agent”. In this context there is little to no difference to what Haneke’s and Noe’s respective films set their ambitions on. Both works almost forcefully coheres their audiences to more directly participate in the understanding and interpretation of their texts, through presenting sexual taboos and realistic violence on screen. They both employ the use of transgressive filmmaking techniques as a way to draw attention to the medium that the message is being communicated. Ultimately, the French New Extremity and Haneke share the same goals; to challenge the traditional structures of society and conventional filmmaking in creative and meaningful ways in order to create the maximum impact for their timely and important messaging.

Works Cited

Alaniz, Anthony. “It’s Time For An American Take On New French Extremity.” Modern Horrors, 11 June 2018, modernhorrors.com/its-time-for-an-american-take-on-new-french-extremity/.

Eakin, Emily. “FILM; An Unabashed Extremist Of Sex and Violence.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Mar. 2003, www.nytimes.com/2003/03/02/movies/film-an-unabashed-extremist-of-sex-and-violence.html.

“Elfriede Jelinek: THE PIANO TEACHER — Interview.” Edited by Austrian Film, Elfriede Jelinek: THE PIANO TEACHER — Interview, Austrian Films, 2001, www.austrianfilms.com/news/en/bodyelfriede_jelinek_the_piano_teacher_-_interviewbody.

Hoff, Kayla. “Pleasure in Pain: A Freudian Approach to the Representation of Self-Inflicted Violence in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher.” Film Matters, vol. 8, no. 1, 2017, pp. 30–34., doi:10.1386/fm.8.1.30_1.

Landwehr, Margarete Johanna. “Voyeurism, Violence, and the Power of the Media: The Reader’s/Spectator’s Complicity in Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher and Haneke’s La Pianiste, Caché, The White Ribbon.” International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, vol. 8, no. 2, 2011, pp. 117–132., doi:10.1002/aps.286.

Thakur, Gautam Basu. “Re-Reading Michael Haneke’s La Pianiste: Schizo-Politics and the Critique of Consumer Culture.” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film, vol. 5, no. 2, 2007, pp. 139–152., doi:10.1386/ncin.5.2.139_1.

Riding, Alan. “FILM; Nihilsm Gets a Butcher’s Face, France a Jolt of Realism.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Mar. 1999, www.nytimes.com/1999/03/14/movies/film-nihilsm-gets-a-butcher-s-face-france-a-jolt-of-realism.html

Rugnetta, Mike. “Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty: Crash Course Theater #43.” YouTube, CrashCourse, 13 Jan. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=DK_vZuLYHcw.

Rugnetta, Mike. “The Horrors of the Grand Guignol: Crash Course Theater #35.” YouTube, CrashCourse, 2 Nov. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUM4RkZ1tuI.

Wigley, Samuel. “10 Great French New Wave Films.” British Film Institute, 24 Apr. 2019, www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/lists/10-great-french-new-wave-films.

Wrye, Harriet Kimble. “Perversion Annihilates Creativity and Love: A Passion for Destruction in Haneke’sThe Piano Teacher.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry, vol. 27, no. 4, 2007, pp. 455–466., doi:10.1080/07351690701484436.

like Cahiers du Cinema in the 50s but if it were stupid

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