The Piano Teacher – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

Director Michael Haneke (Funny Games, Amour) and his attention to storytelling are celebrated by this release of The Piano Teacher from the Criterion Collection in a way that honors the film’s unique quality and its director’s masterful use of the medium of film to tell a story. Watching the film itself is a transformative experience; one that concludes with some viewers wondering if they may have just seem the best movie ever made and some completely baffled by why a person would decide to make this into a film. Personally, I am in the former category. Let’s take a closer look at this blu-ray release to see why it is a necessity for any lover of sometimes-uncomfortable but endlessly watchable films.


The Piano Teacher is about middle aged professor Erika Kohut, played by Isabelle Huppert (I Heart Huckabees), who lives with her domineering mother, played by Annie Girardot (The Discord), and is known for being a very exact and strict teacher of piano at a music academy in Vienna. When she plays the piano at a salon gathering, Erika is encountered by Walter Klemmer, played by Benoît Magimel (La Haine), a young man who has a natural talent for piano. The normally stoic and stern Erika is moved so much by Walter’s talent at the piano that she eventually becomes his teacher. The two develop feelings for one other and we begin to see the passionate feelings behind Erika’s severely tough demeanor start to break down.

Where this not a Michael Haneke film, the above paragraph would essentially be the plot of a solid drama about an older, repressed woman coming to terms with her passionate side and giving in despite the rules and norms of her life. However, this film is completely bonkers! Early on, the audience is shown a scene where Erika escapes the clutches of the strict timeline set by her mother for when she should return home so she can go into a sex shop and watch some porn while taking in large breathes from the used tissue of the previous patron. We see Erika mangle the hand of one of her students by putting broken glass in their coat pocket. What, in another film, would have been a sweet first romantic encounter in a school bathroom, is twisted into a strange game of control and teasing. It is clear that this is not a straight-forward romance between a teacher and her student. At the risk of giving more away than should be given for a film that continuously keeps its audience guessing, I will move away from plot details and just say that the film is often uncomfortable, unpredictable, beautiful, sad, and strange.

What sells all of the elements of this film is a delicate interplay of incredible acting talent, masterful directing, and a very engaging and dramatic soundtrack. The lead role of Erika is played with deft precision by Huppert. She is taut and rigid and restrained in the beginning, playing up her lack of passion and desire for more by frequently staring out of windows and getting misty eyed when music is played in a way she deems correctly translates the composer’s will. By the end of the film, Erika’s desperation and want are worn fully on her face and in her body language as she contorts and pleads with Walter. It is really something to behold, the level of talent Huppert displays on the screen. Additionally, Magimel as Walter shifts between boy and man effortlessly from moment to moment. Sometimes he is defying a strict teacher who he has a crush on by attempting to hold her or kiss her and sometimes he is totally in control. The dynamic of the two characters is complex and shifting and these two actors just bring the whole affair from simmer to boil and back with breathtaking skill.

While the acting is no doubt absolutely stupendous, Michael Haneke’s direction is flawless in its execution. The sets, the blocking, the anxiety-driving long takes, the choice of clothing, the use of color, the use of sound, the use of both camera movement and lack of movement to highlight a given moment of the film all work together expertly to craft a true audio-visual treat. Haneke seems to know instinctively when a shot is perfectly composed or a take is perfectly long. He uses the camera to give insight into the passions of characters that don’t have to spell out where their passions lie. He lets us in on intimate details of their lives with the intrusion of a fly on the wall and allows the audience to be consumed by the images on the screen rather than telling everything that they might be thinking or doing. It makes the film into a bit of a guessing game as we are introduced to a number of scenarios we may have familiarity with, but the characters take actions that are true to themselves as characters, but foreign to us as an audience. It is wonderful!

Speaking of wonderful, the large number of Schubert and Schumann songs played by well-practiced pianists that bathe the audience throughout the film are a treat as well. The music plays dual roles of heightening the audience’s anxiety, as we are shown that Erika can be brutally strict when it comes to interpreting the way music should be played, as well as showing the high level at which the characters are expected to be operating at all times. The music in the soundtrack, in a way, puts a secondary pressure on the characters in the film that makes it make more sense that in an environment where adherence to the rules on the page is necessary, a bit of hidden passion would be understandable. It is an incredible use of diagetic sound to reinforce the themes of the plot. Really, this film is just so incredible. It could take days to detail how good it is in all of its facets.

The Piano Teacher is nearly perfect, though the content might put off a few people, as it is adult and sometimes a bit hard to watch.


Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Clarity/Detail: Flawlessly clear and detailed.

Depth: Good depth when noticeable, especially in the few outdoor scenes.

Black Levels: Black levels are solid and inky.

Color Reproduction: Color is reproduced accurately. Though the film does have a bit of a washed out palette. That, however, is intentional, not a product of poor blu-ray production

Flesh Tones: Flesh looks fleshy

Noise/Artifacts: No noise/artifacting at all.


Audio Format: French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: Sound dynamism is mostly felt in scenes where music is being played, as this is a somewhat quiet and restrained film otherwise. But, it sounds glorious.

Low Frequency Extension: Not a lot of use here, but when there are low sounds, they sound right.

Surround Sound Presentation: Good surround presentation, with effects coming in clear and where they sound like they should be.

Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue is very clear and crisp. The film is in French, so it is necessary to pick out different sound details than English and this blu-ray does an excellent job.


            -Interview with director Michael Haneke (HD, 30 Mins) – The director talks about the making of the film, giving some good details about what his goals were with turning this specifically difficult subject from book into movie. He also spends some time talking about film in general. He comes across as very smart and passionate, which is reflected in the films he makes.

            -Interview with Actor Isabelle Huppert (HD, 11 Mins) – Huppert discusses some of the challenges of playing a character like Erika and details some of the harder to film shots and the experience of working on a set that required this level of precision. Fascinating.

            -Selected scene commentary with Michael Haneke (HD, 50 Mins total) – Haneke comments on a few scenes from the film. He is so interesting to listen to, that I wish there were a full commentary track from him. But, these clips are pretty good anyway.

            -Behind the scenes footage of postsync session for the film with Michael Haneke (HD, 19 Mins) – Just a quick behind the scenes thrown in to pad the special features. This is only mildly interesting.

            -Essay by film scholar Moira Weigel – A nice, brief essay about the film’s themes and its importance. Fun to read, like most of the scholarly essays that come with Criterion blu-rays.


The Piano Teacher blu-ray from the Criterion Collection is a must have. It is the both the kind of film that a person can lovingly watch multiple times cherishing newly discovered details or the kind of film that a person can show to people and watch them squirm. It sits alongside Happiness and A Celebration as one of those genius works of filmic art that are still also totally kinda messed up. Criterion doesn’t disappoint with a gorgeous new transfer to blu-ray and newly done interviews about the film to give this release the special treatment it deserves. I really just need to stop writing so I can go watch this film again!

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