‘The Audition’ Pushes a Music Teacher to the Brink

A violinist struggles with the constraints of her routine days and domestic life.

Ina Weisse’s film The Audition is a holy artifact from a bygone era: last year.

The characters’ ordinary routines — from dining out to commuting to hanging out with friends and family — register like nostalgic memories, scenes from the way we used to live. What differentiates it further from other movies shot recently is that Anna (Nina Hoss), the protagonist, also anticipates and embodies this year’s ongoing age of instability. 

At first, Anna appears to be living a conventional life in Berlin. At the end of her dark, autumn days, she removes her trench coat and the scarf that’s tightly wrapped around her neck. Home from teaching young violinists how to understand the notes they’re playing, she eats dinner with her husband Philippe (Simon Abkarian) and their teenage son Jonas (Serafin Mishiev). They’re a musical family. Philippe repairs stringed instruments in the shop right below their flat. While Jonas is a talented violinist who attends the prestigious conservatory where his mother teaches.

When Anna wakes Jonas up in the morning, he recoils from her touch. She says nothing in response to her son’s coldness. But Hoss, whose screen presence is as enigmatic as Tilda Swinton’s, displays her hurt momentarily, a shadow that moves across her face and then fades from view. It’s the first sign that something’s off in this family’s emotional dynamics. Part of the tension comes from the fact that Jonas likes to play ice hockey after school — he may even like it more than practicing his scales. Anna pushes him toward music, until a new student auditions for a place at the school.

There are superficial parallels that The Audition shares with Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001). Both films feature instructors who could be described as troubled or unconventional. When Weisse and I spoke on a video call, she was prepared for the comparison. The director says that although the milieu is the same, teachers working with students in a musicians’ world, the similarities end there.

“Erika, Isabelle Huppert’s character from the film and Elfriede Jelinek’s book, she’s really a little bit ill,” Weisse explains. “She’s a very extreme character. Anna is not ill. She’s struggling with herself, her father, her son and Alexander, the student.” 

But there’s also an element of casual cruelty that Weisse has incorporated inside of her contemporary tableau. In her depiction of society, she does share that sensibility with Haneke and even the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Martha, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant). I mention a scene in which Anna’s boss makes a cutting remark about her stage performance, in which Anna was nervous and dropped her bow. “That’s true in Germany. In Italy it would be a different story,” she says. But Weisse believes the cruelty in this film has more to do with how competitive musicians are, that they’re as competitive as ice skaters and other athletes.  

In Weisse’s portrait of German life, people do not show their feelings. Hoss, who spoke with me in a separate video chat from London, agrees in this case. “The family’s not melodramatic. That’s also Anna’s heritage,” she says. Hoss avoids interpreting the meaning of specific scenes but does offer some helpful insight about the characters. “The family doesn’t really talk. I think that’s the main damage. There was something about their being speechless.” Anna can’t express what she needs or ask the people around her what they might want. “And of course it’s this, ‘Don’t cry.’” 

It may or may not be that Anna unconsciously engineers a psychodrama between her son and her new student, but Hoss reminds me of one scene that takes place at the family dinner table. “I love that moment in the kitchen, where they have this, we call it in German, abendrot,” she says. They’ll eat a very traditional dinner with bread and some cheese. In that moment, Jonas tests her. Hoss says she wanted to give Anna a little smile in that scene to finally establish a rapport between her and her son. “She feels challenged and she likes the danger, and that’s also creepy.”

Hoss’s Anna may not be as ill as Huppert’s Erika but she’s also not entirely well. But Hoss places her in the larger context of the struggle to be human, to find out who you are in relation to others in society. “What’s your place? How do you feel true to yourself? I think that’s what Anna is looking for.” 

The Audition is now playing virtually at the Roxie Cinema and at BAMPFA.

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