THE PIANO TEACHER is a Psychosexual Masterpiece

A look back at Michael Haneke's harrowing thriller from 2001.

Michael Haneke explores the dynamics of power, control and gender dynamics in a relationship in his masterpiece, The Piano Teacher. Erika Kohut, a piano teacher in her 40s, lives with her domineering mother while her father is locked away in an insane asylum. Erika squirms under the thumb of her mother, vacillating between simpering little girl and an adult struggling for autonomy, the way some people might play to their captors to beg release. While her life at home lays the basic foundation for her psychology, it isn't until cocky young piano player Walter Klemmer manipulates his way into private lessons with Erika that the film veers into wildly compelling -- and unsettling -- territory.

We learn early on that Erika has some sexual hang-ups: she visits an adult store and watches porn in a private booth while inhaling a semen-stained tissue; she sexually mutilates herself on the edge of her bath tub; she urinates outside a parked car while a couple has sex inside. Through this we learn that, for Erika, sex and shame are hopelessly intertwined, but it's that very idea that arouses her repressed desire.

Unfortunately, her attempts at negotiating a sexual relationship with Walter are disastrous, as Erika struggles to exert her icy control over him the same way she might instruct and belittle her students. And while Walter eventually yields to her demands, the moment he ejaculates, he becomes an arrogant, careless young man again. He's gotten what he wants, and her desires are of little consequence until he feels he needs something from her again.

"Why are you sorry? Is it because you are a pig? Because your friends are pigs? Or because all women are bitches for making you a pig?" This is what Erika asks another male student after catching him in the pornography store, and it underscores ideas about the relationship between Erika and Walter, and the way that women are often blamed for making men act deplorably -- because we are too sexy, because we dress a certain way, because we said no, because what we want is different from what they want.

And what Walter wants and what Erika wants are two very different things.

There's a misunderstanding about BDSM (partially thanks to 50 Shades of Grey's alarmingly misguided portrayal of kink) -- this idea that the person who is being controlled has no power, but it's frequently the other way around. The submissive person is the one with all the power, the one who dictates terms and limits and negotiates a scenario in which they submit to control. BDSM can and is often a healthy way to explore the dynamics of power and control between two people, allowing someone who has never had much control, like Erika, to take agency for herself. She has been physically limited by her mother and, presumably, mentally stunted by her father's psychosis (which also may have led, both genetically and effectually, to issues within her own mind).

Erika has waited for years for someone like Walter: the perfect specimen who would love and accept her for who she is, and who might read her lengthy letter -- graphically detailing all the ways in which she wishes for him to exert dominance over her sexually -- and agree to do as she desires. Ideas of submission and dominance aren't exclusive to sexual relationships. Within every relationship there is some sort of imbalance, however slight and subtle. We often seek out in others what we are lacking within ourselves, so that two halves may make a whole. Two opposites can join to create a perfect balance of attributes. And so it's the same for dominance and submission, but what Erika doesn't understand is that, like any relationship, there needs to be trust.

Walter is not to be trusted. He rebukes her after reading her letter and tells her how repulsive she is, that she's garbage unworthy of being touched. His disgusted reaction highlights the thin chasm between what is sexual and what is non-sexual, as it can sometimes be so easy to confuse the two psychologically. Had Walter agreed to indulge Erika's desires, calling her names and telling her how far beneath him she is would be a turn on for her, but outside of those carefully elaborated parameters, those words cut deep.

What happens next is a fascinating insight into a very specifically afflicted mind, and Haneke cuts into Erika's psyche with surgical precision. While her story seems almost too specific to relate to, you can extrapolate the ideas and empathize. Relationships are built on a foundation of trust, and without that trust, it's futile to try and set boundaries and terms. You cannot contain what refuses to be contained, and you cannot define that which balks at definition. Erika is well-versed in the ideas of control and composure, but she's constantly deriding Walter for his refusal to adhere to classical instruction and guidelines. When she cannot control him or get what she wants, Erika devolves into a desperate mess, begging and pleading, offering herself to him entirely -- even confessing that she loves him when she's been so adamant that she feels nothing at all.

When we are rejected by the person we love, there is an inclination to react desperately -- we would do anything to keep that person around, even if it means forsaking our own desires and happiness in some measure. We often don't act on this desperate impulse because we have dignity, because we respect the desires of others, and because we can function autonomously, however sad and heartbroken we might be. Time heals all wounds. But not for Erika. She's still convinced -- and believes -- that Walter is the one for her and that somewhere between what she wants and what he wants is togetherness. His arrogant demeanor has reduced her to little more than a clamoring teenage girl, and she's mistaken his cockiness, believing him to be the dominant presence she needs in order to function. No longer is this about working out her issues with control through sex -- now Walter is on a pedestal, and he's not coming down.

And though he's happy to get what he wants from her, there's something about Erika's desires that seeps into Walter's psyche. In the wrong hands, these ideas of sexual dominance are perverted, and someone like Walter doesn't understand that Erika's desires are rooted in her need to feel as though she's in control, and that all acts must be consensual in order for them to be effective. As Erika's psyche spirals further into the implacable darkness, so does Walter, who is suddenly compelled to grant her wish. But the end result is anything but sexual, and without Erika's consent, the final act between them is disheartening and grotesque. Erika lays on the ground, face bloodied and bruised, as still as a corpse, as Walter rapes her and uses her body. This is not how it was supposed to be, by any means. And yet to Walter, this is Erika's fault. This is what she asked for, what she wanted, and her letter clearly told him that if she begged for him to stop, he should proceed with more force.

The only way Erika has ever known love is through the dominance of her mother, and the only way Walter has ever known love is through false proclamations to get young women into bed. The final act between the two of them is cold and blunt -- Walter gets what he always wanted, and Erika is left even more confused than she was before. This woman, in a state of arrested development, now believes that these perverted, confused and (finally) violent sexual exchanges between the two of them are meaningful. And even though he's hurt her in ways that are unimaginable, Erika is unable to disentangle the threads of sex, shame and abuse. The idea that perhaps what we fantasize about isn't always what we want once we get it, that the fantasy is more potent than the reality, is something that escapes her, as she now believes that she got exactly what she wanted -- even worse, what she deserved. This is how the victim learns to blame herself.

And when Walter shows up to her recital and dismisses her so cavalierly, Erika takes the same approach to calmly removing a knife from her purse and stabbing her chest, with a stone face that refuses to betray her heart. It's the ultimate fuck-you act of defiance -- he may never know she's hurt herself, but the act of stabbing her chest with such bluntness (the same blunt approach used by Walter when he assaulted her) is a grand gesture. It's a way of taking her agency back, of showing him and herself how deeply she's hurt, and of cauterizing the internal wound with an external one, its execution equally drastic in comparison to the sexual and violent exchanges between them. With one brief, violent motion, Erika has put an end to their misshapen relationship and had the final word. How can you be a victim when you're assaulting yourself?