Friday, April 10, 2009

Women in Crisis Film Series -- The Piano Teacher with Dr. Margit Grieb and Dr. Kim Vaz


The Piano Teacher, written by Elfriede Jelinek, was adapted for film and directed by Michael Haneke. Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2004 for her “musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that, with extraordinary linguistic zeal, reveal the absurdity of society's clich├ęs and their subjugating power.” Violence, abuse, and subjugation permeate the work of both the writer and the director. Together, they produced a masterful display of destructive bonds in the domestic arena: terrorism in the home that escapes to become terrorism to the public sphere.

The University of South Florida’s, Margit Grieb, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of German in the Department of World Languages facilitated the most recent film discussion in the Women and Crisis series along with Tampa Bay Psychoanalytic Society board member, Kim Vaz, Ph.D. Dr. Grieb noted that the film was aptly set in Vienna, Austria given its’ focus on sexuality and violence, particularly, sadomasochism.

Dr. Grieb noted that Austria gave rise to early thinking about sexual perversion with work of the Austro-German sexologist, Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing and later in the work Sigmund Freud. For Dr. Grieb, the main character’s (Erika Kohut) sexual practices are an outward expression of her state of mind with respect to her overbearing mother and her young lover.

According to Dr. Grieb, Jelinek’s work critiques Vienna’s “high-culture’s” male-dominated, capitalist social structure that author says exploits and subjugates women. This is the world of this repressed, oppressed, and oppressive piano teacher. Erika Kohut found the perfect world for her icy exterior in the tyrannical world of the piano conservatory. Just as Erika’s mother commands, demands and controls her; Erika reigns over her students like a despot.

Dr. Grieb oriented the audience to pay attention to the way the director created distance between the audience and Erika by not using close-up or ‘point of view shots.’ She asked the audience to decide if the use of distance helped viewers cope with the disturbing scenes. Did the director’s technique make us less emotionally invested in Erika and more able to view her with a critical eye?

Drawing on Jelinek’s own discussion of her novel, Dr. Grieb interpreted Erika as a ‘phallic woman’ who appropriated the masculine perogative of watching female bodies and couples having intercourse. As a voueyer, Erika transgressed masculine norms and in the end paid a price with her life.

After viewing the film, audience members had the following questions: "What causes people to victimize others?" "What makes them turn out that way?" "Was Erika sadistic to her students to 'save' them from her fate?" "How is it that a person can go to work and seem ‘normal,’ yet have so many problems at home and emotionally?" "Can a woman really be considered a “phallic” mother in a patriarchal society?"

Kim Vaz discussed the film from the perspective of a clinician and from the viewpoint that it was a story about malignant trauma. Drawing on the work of Stefanie Teitelbaum, Sue Grand, Harriet Kimble Wyre and Rayan LaMothe, Dr. Vaz explained that malignant trauma occurs at the hands of people and is unlike traumas derived from natural disasters. Malignant trauma is so difficult to recover from and to treat because the betrayal involved leaves surviors with an inability to symbolize or put into words their experience of victimization. What is so shocking to their psyches is that their abuse happens in the context of their abuser’s unwillingness to see their humanity.

Erika’s pervasive feelings and acts of envy, rage, sadomasochism, aggression, and despair arose from her chronic abuse inflicted by her mother’s insistence that she become a successful pianist and her disappointment in Erika's job as a piano teacher. Erika is in bondage to her mother, who never recognizes her daughter’s separate subjectivity.

There is no one else around in Erika’s life that could intervene. Her father is absent and he dies in a mental hospital. Erika’s mother scolds her when she arrives home one day to discover that her father has died. This scene reveals her mother’s complete dependence on Erika. While telling Erika that her father has died, mother slaps the daughter's face. In a reversal of roles, mother is panicked without her daughter beside her. Instead of being set free to go out into the world, Erica has been forced to take her father’s place, literally sleeping in the bed with her mother and serving as the breadwinner for them.

Erika’s inability to escape her mother’s control gives rise to many bizzare behaviors. As Rayan LaMothe notes, "families and cultures transform victims of malignant trauma into perpetrators of these very traumas on others." Sue Grand’s idea is that "to escape the catastrophic loneliness" 'victims-turned-perpetrators' like Erika, become the perpetrator using violence and sadism to inscribe their loneliness on their victims." This Erika does expertly. Picture: "Tatto Girl" by Nina Frasier
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Margit Grieb teaches courses on German film, literature, language and culture and directs the USF Film Studies Certificate Program. She has published articles on videogames, German cinema and television, Avant Garde Feminist new media productions, and the films of Wim Wenders. Her book German Film in the Wake of New Media is in publication. Currently, she is working on another book project, an edited anthology of essays dealing with depiction of Native Americans in German films, books, and amusement parks. (Pictured: Dr. Grieb's students at USF. )
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