Elfriede Jelinek: THE PIANO TEACHER - Interview

Elfriede Jelinek's novel THE PIANO TEACHER (Die Klavierspielerin) was a sensation from the day it was published some 18 years ago. Now Austrian director Michael Haneke adapted her highly disturbing text for the screen. A conversation with Elfriede Jelinek.


AFN: This is the first time that a work of yours has been adapted for the screen. What made you decide to let Michael Haneke go ahead with the project?


Elfriede Jelinek: For a long time I hesitated to give permission, because my prose works are so language-oriented. That is, the images take place in and are transmitted through language. I couldn't imagine that film images could add anything essential. But I always knew that I would only work with a director like Haneke, who can juxtapose his own canon of images with the text. Like Michael Haneke, you are Austrian, and like him, you have constantly explored the dark, the monstrous side of the human heart.


AFN: Should we see a strong connection in this?


Elfriede Jelinek: That is also a clichee. But it is true that we are not particularly "light" individuals - artistically, I mean. I, like Haneke, insofar as I know his work, am better able to criticize society from a negative perspective. Precisely because the positive clichE9s in our country are so stifling, I sought to take what it most prides itself on, its music and musical geniuses, and present its negative side: the renunciation of their libido by hundreds of female piano teachers. You were brought up by a tyrannical, middle-class Catholic mother, and your father died in a psychiatric institution.


AFN: To what extent is your novel autobiographical?


Elfriede Jelinek: I'd prefer not to answer that, and I'd also prefer my novel not to be seen as autobiographical, although naturally it contains many autobiographical elements. What interests me in a story is its resonance - in this case the unravelling of one of the women who carry on their backs the high culture that Austria so idolizes. An unlived sexuality expressed in voyeurism: A woman who cannot partake in life or in desire. Even the right to watch is a masculine right, the woman is always the one who is watched, never the one who watches. In that respect, to express it psychoanalytically, we are dealing here with a phallic woman who appropriates the male right to watch, and who therefore pays for it with her life.


AFN: How do you explain Erika's insanity?


Elfriede Jelinek: She is certainly not insane, not at all. Neurotic, but not insane. As I just tried to explain, this is all the bloody (in the truest sense of the word) consequence of the fact that a woman is not allowed to live if she claims a right that is not hers and that she obtains only in the rarest of cases: artistic fame. The right to choose a man and also to dictate how he tortures her - that is, domination in submission -- this she is not permitted. Indeed for a woman almost everything beyond the bearing and raising of children is a presumption. You are not particularly easy on women. That isn't my role. I seek to cast an incorruptible gaze on women, especially where they are the accomplices of men.


AFN: When it was published, certain critics in Austria qualified the novel as pornographic. Were you hurt by this response?


Elfriede Jelinek: The novel is the opposite of pornographic. Pornography suggests desire everywhere and at every moment. The novel proves that this does not exist, that it is a construct meant to keep women willing, because most of them are the object of pornography anyway, while men look at them, and can almost see inside their bodies. But I am used to being misunderstood. I am even blamed for what I attempt to analyze in my writing. As so often happens, the messenger is attacked, and not what she expresses. No one is interested in that. About your characters you have said, "I strike hard so nothing can grow where my characters have been."


AFN: Is redemption impossible?


Elfriede Jelinek: My writings are limited to depicting analytically, but also polemically (sarcastically), the horrors of reality. Redemption is the specialty of other authors, male and female. My writing, my method, is based on criticism, not utopianism.


AFN: Behind the description of a pathological case, is there not a denunciation of Austria's musical culture, which contributes to your country's identity?


Elfriede Jelinek: Yes, precisely. The idolization of high musical culture, which the country lives off (think how these great masters were often treated in their lifetimes, and how contemporary artists are treated!), and through which it is bought. Indeed Hegelian master-servant relationship. High culture is the master, the female piano teachers are the serving maids. They have no right to any creative energy, not even to a life of their own (I carried this to its extreme in the text).


AFN: Would you have made the same musical choices as Michael Haneke?


Elfriede Jelinek: We discussed the choice of music beforehand. Anyway most of the pieces are specified in the text.


AFN: Just like Michael Haneke with his camera, you wield your pen like a scalpel. Are there similarities in your work?


Elfriede Jelinek: That is why Michael Haneke is so well suited to adapt this novel for the screen, because we both proceed analytically and dispassionately, perhaps like scientists studying the life of insects. You see the mechanisms better from a distance than when you are in the middle of them.


© 2001 wega-film