Violence & Desire: Wilhelm Reich in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher is Haneke’s sixth film. It’s an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Elfride Jelenik. The story is to some degree autobiographical. Jelenik was trained to be a musical prodigy but, in her early 20s, she was overcome with an anxiety disorder that led to agoraphobia. She began to write as a form of therapy. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 but was unable to collect the award due to her anxiety disorder, accepting the prize via a video message.

I’ve chosen to write about this film because it’s as clear an exposition of Wilhelm Reich’s ideas around armouring as I’ve seen, albeit with one key element missing (which I will return to later). Armouring is the process discovered by Reich whereby as children and infants we learn to reduce our emotional pain and distress by creating muscular tensions. These tensions become chronic and unconscious, held outside of our awareness, and contribute to structuring our characters. They help to manage our pain but they reduce our capacity to live fully. A key process we armour against is our sexuality. Reich’s ideas help to explain why such a central part of lives is surrounded by so many taboos and so much fear, loathing and disgust. This is illustrated in this film with stunning force.

Submerged desires

The story centres on Erika Kohut (played by Isabelle Huppert), a Viennese piano teacher who falls in love with a young student, Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel) . Erika is heavily repressed and at first tries to manage her emotions via masochistic games and fantasies but she rapidly spirals out of control. We get our first hints that Erika may be a peculiar character in the film’s opening when we see her return home to a flat shared with her mother. They fight viciously over Erika’s lateness and her mother destroys a new dress Erika has bought. They then retire to a bed that they share.

We get more of a sense of Erika’s stifled desires when we see her visit a sex shop. She sniffs semen-stained tissues from the bin as she watches a porno video in a booth. Despite her armour, she wants to reach out to the world. She’s a young women still full of life’s urges, seeking satisfaction, but the basic impulse to reach out is frustrated and emerges in a distorted form. “Rather than walking towards, we slide, we joke rather than ask directly” (1). Her voyeurism allows Erika some relief from her tension without too much risk or sacrifice. Later, she spies on two characters making love at a drive in. She’s so excited by this that she urinates on the ground.

Intolerable Tension

When Walter approaches her, Erika’s desire spills over. She cuts herself with a razor. This gesture can be read in many ways – as a mock castration, as a deflowering, as a self-induced menstruation. Reich’s work on masochism provides another reading. This work was a key moment for him – it triggered a “breakthrough into the biological”. Encountering masochists in his clinical practice, Reich asked questions about their responses to pain (in one instance, acting on a request, he hit a masochist on the buttocks with a ruler!) In his experience. masochists experienced pain in just the same way as everyone else, so Reich was compelled to ask “if the masochist does not strive for unpleasure, does not experience it pleasurably, why does he feel compelled to be tormented?”(2) . Eventually, the answer he arrived at was that the masochist fantasizes that this penetration of the skin will allow him release from his internal tensions: “he is being tormented because he wishes to burst. Only in this way does he hope to attain relaxation”(3). The concept of internal tension and its release was very fruitful for Reich – it led him to contest Freud’s death instinct and to develop the deep biological roots of his therapy – but that’s beyond the scope of this essay. In this reading, Erika pierces the surface of her skin as a placebo, to release the mounting pressure of her desires. Cuts, abrasions, beatings – all these are means by which the organism might try and free itself of this intolerable tension.

Reich again: “The desire to be rubbed by a hard brush or to be beaten until one’s skin bursts is nothing other than the wish to bring about the release of tension through bursting. Thus, the pain is by no means the goal of the impulse. It is merely an unpleasant experience in achieving release from the unmistakable real tension”(4).

Loss of Control

Erika’s passion and sadism spills over when she becomes jealous of one of her students, who momentarily takes Walter’s attention. Overcome with jealously, she fills the girl’s pocket with broken glass. The girl cuts her hand and maybe ruins her career. This character can be seen as a projection of the younger Erika, with a similarly domineering mother. In ruining her hand, perhaps Erika frees her from the slavery she herself has experienced. Much like her voyeurism, sadism and rage also emerge from stifled desire. Reich reports that rage is the first reaction to emerge as armour begins to disintegrate, a response to the suppression of pleasure.

Other responses in the film are also reminiscent of the progress of orgone therapy. After the first expressions of desire between the couple, they have a one on one piano lesson together. Erika gets up to cough intensely before she hands him a letter detailing her fantasies. Huppert comments on this scene in the DVD extras. She discusses the delicacy of her cough, how a small movement reveals much greater tensions.: “It’s a very faint sound, which rapidly becomes unbearable. Because the impression is that you’re holding back something huge. Is increased by this faint sound …Suddenly, you can’t control your body….It reveals something you hadn’t planned.” Coughing, tears, tremors, any spontaneous movements of the body – this is the mode of communication in orgone therapy. These spontaneous movements, and their suppression by a client, are the materials a therapist will diagnose and work with, with respiration being absolutely key. Here, we see the free movement of breathing, the process of yielding to the excitation of the organism, suppressed due to fear. The two responses fight each other in Erika’s body – a psychological conflict is expressed physically.

The letter precipitates Erika’s fall. Her armour cracks. Walter rejects her and belittles her fantasies. After this, in an extraordinary scene Erika enters her bed, next to her mother and performs what can only be described as a simultaneous attack and embrace. It’s a movement driven by panic as she attempts to both hold onto her mother and to control her, as if she wants to retreat into her mother’s body, to return to the womb. As she attacks her, she yanks up her nightie and afterwards says “I saw the hairs on your sex”. To quote Huppert again, she is saying “I saw the centre of pleasure and desire, the world’s origin, my origin”. This regression is indicative of a complete psychic collapse. Erika surrenders any pretence of control and pursues Walter, resulting in more rejection and humiliation, before the film’s apocalyptic finale where she is beaten and sexually assaulted.

Finding freedom?

At the film’s close Erika, arms herself with a knife, before she is due to give a recital. She sees Walter but he sweeps past quickly, and she turns the knife on herself, wounding her upper chest. This moment is to me emblematic of humiliation suffered in our psychic growth, especially those suffered by women. Aggressive impulses collapse inward, find no expression in the outer world and are directed back inward onto ourselves, composing litanies and narratives of powerlessness, self-doubt, and weakness. This lack of power compounds the humiliation suffered.

I mentioned above a key element that’s missing from my reading. The real difference between this film and therapy is that in therapy these responses and this dissolution is deliberately sought. The fear, rage, terror, regression all these are still present, but they aren’t end points or dead ends. They are realised, experienced fully and worked through, to place the patient in a greater place of health. The final shot shows Erika abandoning the recital, the cage of her former life and walking off. Perhaps here she’s reached this place of integration.

  1. Personal comment by Daniel Schiff, training seminar, Oslo, 2015
  2. Reich, Wilhelm, The Function of the Orgasm, p. 253 (Souvenir Press, 1993)
  3. Reich, Wilhelm, op. cit, p. 253
  4. Reich, Wilhelm, op. cit, p. 254
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