Those who can’t do, teach. Anna (Nina Hoss) is a perfectionist in the music studio. She demands the best from her students, putting them through gruelling rehearsals and studies to refine their talents, but she struggles to deliver herself when it’s time to play. She goes Old Testament on her students by taking the proviso “suffer the little children” to the hilt with her exacting practices and cold, clinical precision.
Anna’s demand for perfection borders upon sadism. Director Ina Weiss drops audiences into the teacher’s lessons as she takes a special interest in pupil Alex (Ilja Monti) despite her colleagues’ concerns that he isn’t ready. Perhaps she’s showing off by taking a less qualified student and whipping him into shape.
Classes with Anna are more akin to lessons in survival than music. She tells Alex he plays too slow. His nails are too long. He lets his should sag—a fault that prompts a humiliating solution from Anna. Alex improves dramatically over the course of the sessions, but the classes seem like pure hell. Anna looks to be the only one enjoying it. The shots get tighter and the pace quickens as Weiss ratchets up the tension, bringing Alex to his breaking point and Anna close to climax.
She’s a complex character, Anna, and Hoss shrewdly keeps audiences at a distance. Anna has a special fondness for the art of suffering—she thinks it makes people stronger. She inherits the trait from her father, as evidenced by one uncomfortable visit with her son, Jonas (Serafin Mishiev), in which he cruelly inflicts pain on the boy to teach him a lesson. Anna seems less concerned with Jonas’s well-being than her father’s choice to hone in on her territory: only she can hurt her boy.
Emotional and psychological pains are Anna’s preferred flavour, though, and Hoss relishes the opportunity to let her character manipulate those around her. The evidence is everywhere from the lessons with Alex to the alienating effect that Anna’s attention towards her student has on her son. Even a perfectly innocent dinner date with her husband proves deliciously intriguing as Anna switches tables (and meals) and he obliges, familiar with the game, though less aware of the infidelities with which Anna manipulates their marriage.
Hoss delivers a master class in screen acting in The Audition. Her performance as the stern violin teacher and icy mother is yet another enigmatic turn in her body of work after films like Barbara and Phoenix. Like Isabelle Huppert, Hoss has a knack for inhabiting “unlikable” characters and turning them into beguiling psychological studies of the human condition. Her performance exudes the music teacher’s own insistence on discipline, technical mastery, and emotional intonations.
Anna reprimands Alex for delivering mechanical realizations of the material and yet the perceived absence of emotion in Hoss’s performance is the film’s secret weapon. Anna rarely exudes any joy or pleasure. When she finally reveals a full smile at the end of the film, it’s a viciously charming revelation of pride. She makes the film a masterfully contained study of the nature/nurture debate. Although “nurturing” hardly feels accurate after assessing Anna’s motherly behavior.