EH: Yes, one of the things that’s interesting about The Piano Teacher is how thoroughly it fits in with Haneke’s other work even though it’s one of his rare adaptations of someone else’s writing. The Piano Teacher stands out because it’s the only Haneke film in which sexuality is at the center of the story, but in most other ways it’s very typical of his examinations of communication breakdowns and violence. Like the deaf-mute kids in Code Unknown, Erika and Walter have trouble communicating, even though it seems like sometimes they do nothing else. Erika even writes out a multi-page letter detailing everything that she wants from Walter, but as you say, once he delivers on her desires—out of spite rather than a wish to fulfill her sadomasochistic fantasies—she’s humiliated and terrified rather than turned on. The question is, what does she really want?
It’s obvious that Erika is a deeply repressed woman, and that her sexuality is tied up with her complicated feelings about the domineering mother who habitually rummages through Erika’s purse and harangues her about everything from clothes purchases to Schubert. “This is nothing to do with you,” Walter says to Erika’s mother, right before he locks the mother in a room and rapes Erika, but actually it has everything to do with her. All of Erika’s fantasies involve her mother: being tied up in the room next to her mother, being helpless and so close to the woman who runs her life, except that her mother would be unable to get to her or help her. That’s why, after Walter rejects Erika’s S&M proposals, she throws herself desperately at her mother instead, because in many ways that’s who she was fixated on all along—her mother is mentioned as often in Erika’s letter as Walter is.
JB: That’s a terrific observation, and it explains more than it might initially appear. For example, what is Erika and Walter’s first sexual encounter about if not Erika’s desire to control someone else to the point that even their sexuality doesn’t seem to belong to them? The first time Erika and Walter get physical together, they’re in a public bathroom at a concert hall, and while Walter wants to express his passion physically and verbally, Erika just wants him to obey. Her pleasure comes from making him subservient. And the longer the scene goes on the clearer it becomes that Erika isn’t acting. She isn’t role playing. She’s interested in sex on her terms or not at all.
Of course, as much as Erika’s story examines the repression of her natural womanhood at the hands of her domineering mother, The Piano Teacher is also a comment on our desensitization to violent or otherwise extreme imagery. Erika’s sexual fantasies appear to be lifted from pornographic movies that are typically defined by demonstrations of dominance, and, sure enough, Erika tries on both roles: she’s detailed in articulating exactly what she wants from Walter, and yet her fantasies are built around her own submission. Much as Funny Games is designed to make us question our casual acceptance of graphic violence, The Piano Teacher points out that the eroticism of many fairly typical sexual fantasies that are frequently depicted in movies—pornographic or mainstream—often shatters when brought into the real world. I don’t think Haneke is condemning the sexual rituals themselves, necessarily. He’s simply condemning those who don’t know where to draw the line between fantasy and reality.
EH: I think that’s right. What Haneke is decrying here isn’t necessarily sadomasochism in itself, but the disconnection and alienation that prevents these characters from knowing what it is they really want, as opposed to what they think they want. Both Walter and Erika are responding primarily to ideals rather than reality: Walter to a conventional romanticism in which he’d like to sweep this woman off her feet and have a passionate affair, Erika to the elaborate and violent fantasies she’s constructed as a subconscious compensation for a life in which she otherwise feels she has no control. Neither of them gets what they want in the end, even though, technically, they both get their desires; Erika lives out her bondage fantasy and Walter finally consummates the love he at least once felt for Erika, but neither of them is too happy about this conclusion.
A big part of the problem, for Erika at least, is disconnection from her feelings. Many of Haneke’s films deal with the disassociation of emotions: the killers’ muted responses to violence in Benny’s Video and Funny Games, the shifting of emotion into performance that I discussed in Code Unknown, the denial of guilt in Caché, which we’ll be discussing shortly. Haneke has repeatedly returned to this theme, and Erika fits the pattern as well. There’s very little that moves Erika, very little that wipes away the stern, stoic expression that is pretty much locked on her face like a mask. That’s why the few moments when Erika does betray flickers of emotion are so startling, like the closeups of her face when she’s listening to Walter play for the first time, and, in a very different way, the expression on her face as she illicitly watches a couple having sex in the backseat of a car at a drive-in movie theater. Erika is generally detached and desensitized, and only raw sexuality and the music of Schubert still have the potential to move her—which is perhaps why she attempts to combine the two with Walter.
It’s interesting that Haneke, in this film, is so respectful towards the classical music that Erika loves. There’s little trace of the antagonistic attitude behind his gesture of drowning out classical music with Naked City in Funny Games—though that gesture is echoed here in the weird little scene where the big, bulky hockey players chase the graceful figure skaters off the ice, which has a similar effect to the noisy jazz barreling over the delicate classical music. There’s always been a conflict in Haneke’s work between the classical and the modern, often in the context of mocking the bourgeois habit of appropriating classical art and rendering its beauty and ideas inert. Here, the classical music that Erika loves doesn’t seem nearly as safe or decontextualized as the music played by the family at the beginning of Funny Games—this is classical culture that still has the potential to move and provoke, which is why the closeups of Erika listening to music are some of the most affecting images in the film, the only moments when Erika achieves something like grace.
JB: Music is linked to grace in Haneke’s next film, too, although this time music is the exception to the rule. Time of the Wolf is what you might call a mid-apocalyptic movie, showing French citizens stuck between some unspecific ecological disaster and what seems to be their eventual demise. It’s a dreary film, no surprise, with a color palette dominated by grays, dark greens and dull browns, and it’s without a musical score. But it isn’t entirely without music. In one noteworthy scene, a teenage girl named Eva (Anais Demoustier, who could be the sister of The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley), who has seen her father murdered in front of her and now is fighting to survive with her mother, Anne (Isabelle Huppert again), and brother, Ben (Lucas Biscombe), approaches a stranger at a small train depot where dozens of fellow drifters have come together in hopes of escape, and asks to hear music from his portable cassette player. The stranger smiles and complies, first showing her how he manually rewinds the cassette with his finger, in an effort to save precious battery life, and then handing over his player, which Eva holds to the side of her head to let the classical music play into her ear. As she listens, Eva gazes at the flickering light of a lantern, but dark as the shot is, the mood of the scene is atypically bright.
I’ve started at an emotional high point here, because seven films into this discussion there should be little doubt that Time of the Wolf is full of palpable suffering and despair; Haneke’s bread and butter. In fact, in the scene immediately after the one I described above, Eva witnesses another young girl in the encampment being raped with a knife to her throat. But as grim as Time of the Wolf tends to be, its ending might be the most hopeful of any Haneke film, and thus one of the most surprising. In the penultimate scene, young Ben heads out to the fire that’s been built on the train tracks to slow down any passing train, stokes the flames with fresh branches and then steps dangerously close to the fire. He’s naked, and he looks ready to leap onto the fire as an act of sacrifice—apparently determined to reenact a mythic ritual he’d overheard someone else in the encampment describing earlier. But before he can jump, a man comes rushing up behind him and scoops Ben up in his arms. Ben resists at first, only to break down crying in the man’s arms. “Have a good cry,” the man says. “That will make you feel better.” He rocks the boy in his arms and tells him not to believe everything he hears, and then, as the camera cranes upward and away, he compliments the boy’s bravery. “You’d have done it for sure. Believe me. You were ready to do it. That’s enough, see.”
It’s a beautiful scene, both in execution (that long, retreating shot captures the intimacy of the moment while also suggesting how small, and thus powerless, the man and boy are in the big picture) and in spirit. It’s enough to make you wonder if the cynical and pessimistic Haneke has more hope for the world than his films let on. “You’ll see,” the man says. “Everything will work out. Maybe tomorrow even.” It’s as if Haneke can’t help but be moved by those who remain hopeful in the face of overwhelming horror, chaos and destruction.
EH: Way back at the beginning of this discussion, when I cited the surprising hopefulness that at times balances the overriding horror of Haneke’s work, it was that scene especially that I had in mind, along with the more ambiguous but still strangely hopeful final shot of his next film, Caché. The ending of Time of the Wolf is marvelous in so many ways, but most of it all it’s fantastic because of the way it suggests this sense of human hope even in the face of what seems to be certain destruction. This film is about what people might be like in the absence of the rules and boundaries placed on us by society, and on the whole it is not an especially uplifting portrait of human nature: people kill, steal, horde supplies, exploit the weaknesses of others and generally act in all the terrible ways that people already act before the collapse of society, except that now there’s nothing to hold them back anymore. In some scenes towards the beginning of the film, Anne tries to find food and shelter for her family with the residents of the rural town where the family had kept their vacation home, but with few exceptions no one even opens the door or responds to her pleas, even though these people seem to be friends and acquaintances, people who knew her and her family well. Later, ironically, they find more welcome with some strangers in a train station, forming a new makeshift society that provides a little stability to their lives.
In this context, that shot of Ben and the watchman embracing by the fire is especially powerful. As Haneke pulls back, away from the fire, the darkness seems to close in around it, until the flames, with the boy and the man who saved him silhouetted in front of them, become a shrinking and fragile beacon of light in the dense surrounding darkness of the night. I think for Haneke that light is society, a fragile and imperfect flame that is nevertheless the only light holding back the darkness and despair that would otherwise swallow us all up. It’s through society that we provide frameworks for law and justice, for order, and care for the young and the weak. So many of Haneke’s films are about the darkness surrounding that flame, but this one especially is ultimately about the light in the darkness: the signal fires that Anne and Eva use to find each other while looking for Benny, the flick of a lighter, the flame that they keep burning in the hope that a train will stop.
That’s why, after that scene by the fire, in the final shot Haneke cuts to a shot taken from a train as it goes chugging through the countryside. The meaning of this final shot is ambiguous, and purposefully so. Did the train finally come? Or is this simply a representation of eternal hope, the hope that rescue is coming, that the train will arrive and take off all the survivors to some vaguely defined safe place?
JB: Don’t forget the flickering flame of the lantern that Eva looks into as she listens to the music; indeed, there is a strong light-in-the-darkness theme running through Time of the Wolf. As for the final shot, I must admit I wish it weren’t there. The previous shot—the retreating view of the man and boy in front of the fire—is so graceful, so touching, so powerful, that it would be difficult for any scene to follow it. And so even if one interprets that final shot to represent that the man’s hope isn’t foolish, that the train is coming, cinematically speaking it’s such a mundane visual that it doesn’t feel as meaningful as I think Haneke wants it to be. In short, he had the perfect ending already. (Although, a closing credits sequence over that final train shot would have been effective.)
As for the larger themes: At the risk of beating one of Haneke’s dead horses, I think the familiar morality play that unfolds in this film is unusually interesting. In films like 71 Fragments and Code Unknown, Haneke’s examinations of right and wrong, of involvement and indifference, of selective ethical standards, and so on, create depth, but they also make the films feel rather academic, as if they should come with discussion group questions at the end. Obviously I’m very much in favor of movies that challenge us and make us think, but for whatever reason I find the questions posed by Haneke’s films more engaging when they’re seamlessly embedded within the structure, rather than laying out there on the surface. Time of the Wolf is built on Haneke’s most fantastical narrative, as it implies a disaster the likes of which mankind has never seen, but it feels particularly real because Haneke seems more willing to let his characters operate within that narrative, rather than using them as diagrams in a larger thesis. Over time, Haneke has become a storyteller who wants to grapple with moral and ethical issues, whereas early in his career it was the other way around.
EH: I think that’s true, though I’d say that the shift started with Code Unknown, which is far more character-based than the early films while dealing with the same thematic currents that have always animated Haneke’s work. I don’t want to suggest, of course, that Haneke’s more abstract, theoretical approach in his “glaciation trilogy” is invalid, or that films with a more academic slant don’t have merit, because I certainly don’t think that’s true as a general principle. In Haneke’s case, though, I think his films have definitely grown richer and more complex as he’s fleshed out his ideas with more substantial characters who seem to exist for more of a reason than to prove one of the director’s points.
Haneke’s next film, Caché, continues this trend. Although the film is typically rich in thematic subtext—about guilt, the French treatment of Algeria, and the denial of responsibility—it explores these ideas through the personal experiences of television host Georges (Daniel Auteuil). Georges and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche) begin receiving mysterious videotapes taken from outside their house—an idea possibly borrowed from David Lynch’s Lost Highway, though Haneke takes it somewhere very different—and Georges gradually connects this strange form of harassment to an incident from his youth, in which he lied about the Algerian orphan Majid, who his parents had been on the verge of adopting until Georges’ lies caused them to send the boy away.
This is an obvious metaphor for French denial of the atrocities committed during the Algerian independence movement, and Haneke makes explicit reference in particular to a massacre that occurred in Paris on October 17, 1961, when an undetermined number of protesting Algerians (including Majid’s parents in the film) were killed by Parisian police and dumped in the Seine. The French government denied the incident for a long time (just as Georges seems almost amnesiac about his mistreatment of Majid) before belatedly admitting, in 1998, that 40 people were killed, though unofficial estimates have always placed the toll at 200 or higher. This is not the first time that Haneke has built a film around real historical events or news stories, but whereas his earlier films might have examined this incident directly and polemically, here Haneke gets at the historical context more obliquely, through the personal guilt and avoidance of responsibility of one man who represents this larger societal denial.