If one closes one’s eyes an imprint of the previous image perceived can be viewed on the black of one’s eyelids. We have no control over the image, it is a static, ever-diminishing light bereft of colour and piquancy. This is the latent world that Haneke traps the piano teacher within.
One would be forgiven for omitting her name. Professor Kohut might as well have been christened with her eventual professional title. Haneke portrays the abstracted piano teacher as a eunuch to her matriarchal mother’s commands. She is impotent to question her mother’s demands; instead she adorns her mother’s choice in apparel, and remains in constant availability but for revelling in a few deviant pleasures.
It is no coincidence that the Professor venerates Schumann and his composition ‘Fantasie in C Major’, written in the onset of his mental decline. She iterates his knowledge that he is no longer in the prime of his youth and contends with the belief that he has a last impetuosity, one last twilight, before he dries up. Yet, perhaps this is the Professor’s first. Her battle lies in that she fails to experience; she impassively views life as a set of instructions like the chords of sheet music. When she loves she enforces a written code of practice on her lover, unable to tolerate instinctive displays of affection.
Until the virile young Walter Klemmer is computed as a potential target of her perverse desires, the Professor’s sexual urges are sated with a shroud between heated passion and her unflinching expressions; whether that be a television screen showing pornography, sniffing the semen on a used tissue, or the car window of a couple in the midst of intercourse. They can lead her to an explosion of gratification, but not punctuated by a typical climax but by a perfunctory body movement. Haneke harnesses her sexual emotion; her face remains unaltered as urinating, choking or vomiting yield the release of her pleasure.
The novel of the same title, penned by German author Elfriede Jelinek explores the delivering, loss and consequences of control. There is constant competition for control in Haneke’s adaptation as the Professor’s one last twilight is unattainable without the subjugation of her mother’s imposing will. The Professor’s mother has prescribed years of debilitating mechanisms to keep her daughter under the strings of her command. In order to reverse this hegemony the Professor must initiate trivial battles; she purchases a new dress or remains out of reach for an evening, and alongside this incidental jockeying transpires the physical fights, the hair-ripping, slapping and the instruction for Klemmer to act as though her mother was absent – this an implicit instruction for Klemmer to dispose of her because of her omnipresence in her daughter’s life.
Violent gambits are neither just the means of the Professor’s combat, Klemmer fights to reassert his masculinity through physical force after he encounters humiliation at the hands of the Professor. This reassertion of machismo affirms his virility and his one unrivalled asset: youth.
Watching Haneke can be something like poking a roadkill toad with a stick on your way home from school. It is likely that you were repulsed by the decomposing skin and the visible fractures on the limbs of the toad. Disquieted, you fled. Haneke gives you the chance to roll back your suppression of the disturbing curiosity that lingered days after the event; a curiosity that you haven’t acknowledged since. More often than not there will be one moment in a Haneke film that will have you with your head in your hands, murmuring expletives into your sweaty fingers. In that instant your eyes will avert, only to return in the next instant compelled. Haneke reminds us that there is a little of the perverse within us all and neither is it a crime of the sinful.
When Mother is sexually assaulted by her middle-aged daughter in the bed that they share, a discombobulated titter rises in your throat. An instant later you are relieved that Haneke has played his hand; this is the worst of the sexual repression and broken social norms that you are going to encounter. Only it’s not.
A further instant gives you the time to reflect that your hands are still dry and are still contentedly clutching the popcorn; you aren’t the slightest bit perturbed. With this realisation comes the perspiring armpits – you’ve brought the decaying toad home and with your hands guiltily stained with blood, dirt and other obnoxious fluids you stand before your mother with a beaming propitious smile. How could this not be appropriate? What else is befitting of this overwhelming feeling of pride and discovery. Because when the Professor mounts her elderly mother, smothers her lips with kisses and gropes between her legs you perceive this to be the natural conclusion to their love. After all, Mother impregnates her daughter with the act of sabotage inflicted upon her daughter’s supposed rival. Mother and daughter lie in bed next to one another, mother permeating her daughter with soliloquies of malicious intent and these are born with the fertility of youth; the Professor bounds in playful vivacity before maiming her rival.
The final scenes are played out with impendency; a threat hangs in the air and in the face of the Professor. Her mother is unusually submissive; the Professor has finally reached the summit of her potency and all the battles combine in one room, but it is she that is the virago standing tall amongst her weaker challengers. She can cut a man down in her prime, she can destroy the hopes of a gifted young disciple; no man or woman can soil her ambition. All but one. The Professor’s lingering devotion to the woman that trapped and destroyed her own hopes as a gifted young disciple plagues her like Stockholm syndrome. Instead, she aims to destroy what her mother truly cares about and even this with a powerless indifference.
Haneke intends us to feel not the pain of the tearing of skin but of the ungratifying and unfulfilled.
Artwork by: John Mcloughlin