Welcome to the All-Time Favourites Series. This series examines 25 of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, looking at them in depth with analyses of what makes them great, and cutting down to the most basic level, looking at plot, cinematography, writing, direction, acting and other things, to see what makes these great films tick. For more on the series, click here. This week’s film is one of my five favourite movies of all time, Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown.
Note: This review is shortened and features some excerpts from a large essay I am currently writing on the film. When I finish this essay, it will also be posted here on the site.
A group of deaf children play charades. A young girl mimes crouching into a corner slowly, and her peers must guess what this represents. Alone? Hiding place? Gangster? Bad conscience? Sad? Imprisoned? With each guess, the girl shakes her head. No one can get it. And with each shake of her head, the look on her face becomes more indescribably poetic and hauntingly sad. She was miming something that cannot be put into words.
Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown is not only the most perfect example of the genius of the German-born director, but it is also his only perfect film. As close as his other works may get to perfection, none reach the level of brilliance of Code Unknown, which has more to say about our modern society and the nature of morality, acceptance, prejudice, communication, torture and ignorance than any other conceivable cinematic work in all of history that I have seen. It is quite possibly the most uncomfortable and unentertaining film of its type, and this only adds richly to its effect. This is one of the few films I have ever seen that I think as many people as possible need to see – note that there are plenty of films I want people to see, but only a handful I would class as ‘necessary’ viewing, and Code Unknown is inarguably one of them.
The central issue of the film is the communication difficulties that ensue in communities consisting of mixed races, and how equality and interrelationships are forgone in favour of ignorance and bitterness. In the Parisian suburbs which prove to be the central location of much of the film’s action, people of several different races and creeds are brought together by chance. No race looks kindly on any other. They don’t all look cruelly on each other, but their main issue is their ignorance. Perhaps at one time they wanted to communicate, but their inability to speak to each other on the most basic level has left them contemptuous and spiteful. Haneke even tricks the audience, making them too unable to understand some forms of communication that are used.
The chance that brings them together is an encounter on the city streets. Jean, a young man who lives with his father in isolation on a farm, meets up with Anne, his brother Georges’s girlfriend. He tells her he is unhappy, and wants out of his life with his father. In frustration, Jean throws a bag of pastry into the lap of Maria, homeless Romanian woman on the street. For this act, he is berated by Amadou, a French-African whose history with such abuse makes acts like this disturb him very much. He starts an argument with Jean, which soon turns violent. This whole eight minute scene is shot in one, unbroken take.
In fact, almost every single scene in the movie (and the movie consists of nothing but a series of ‘scenes’, separated by a few seconds of black screen) is shot in one take, and when a scene implements cuts it does so only to jar and unsettle us. With each scene, we cut more into the lives of Anne, Georges, Jean, Amadou and Maria, and the effects of Jean’s small but important act on the street and how it changes the lives of many of them. In a long series of disjointed scenes and episodes, we see the lives of these five play out, and Haneke also presents to the audience his brilliance in crafting some truly spectacular vignettes out of very little at all. He also manages to play with our emotions in a peculiar and terrific way.
Take for example the scene early in the film where Anne is ironing clothes and watching TV. She hears a noise and turns the TV off. We listen and hear with her the sounds of children screaming as they are beaten in the next apartment. A shocked Anne does her best to ignore it and turns the TV back on. Scenes like this have an incredible tension built into them in such subtle ways, and not all of them release this tension. There is a famous scene even earlier in the film where Anne, an actress, is rehearsing her lines for a film. She looks directly into the camera as she says them, and an off-screen voice says the lines of another character. The scene is disturbing, and Anne acts it so well some of the audience won’t realize it’s only an act. She is told she is being imprisoned in this decripit room, and that she will die there. She attempts to bargain with her captor, but is rebuffed: “I merely want to watch you die.” This scene is incredibly distressing, and because of how early it is, it becomes clear that Haneke is setting a mood of discomfort within the audience. For example, a couple of scenes prior to this we are shown a slide show of horrific images of death and killing in war, the photo diary of Georges. And then there is the scene I spoke of previously where Anne hears the sound of violence. Such things seem only to be suggested in Haneke’s film, and he builds up tension so terrifically that the film is only more disturbing when he refuses to release it.
Haneke’s main theme – the inability for people with different ideas or lifestyles to communicate – is punctuated through several of these vignettes, sometimes subtly and sometimes outrageously clear. Consider for example the penultimate scene of the film, where Anne is abused on a subway train by two Arabian youths. Watching this scene at home recently, I was struck by how it affected me emotionally. I wasn’t just saddened and sympathetic toward Anne, I felt violently angry toward the youths, and indeed anger erupts and tension is released when another passenger, an elderly Arabian man, explodes at the boys. Here Haneke does a rare thing in releasing the tension, but this does not make the audience feel better at all. In fact, the scene only becomes more uncomfortable after the youth continues to terrorize Anne and she breaks down in tears. Haneke seems to be commenting that things like this happen all the time, and we do nothing about them. The solution is not violence, Haneke believes, but communication. If only we could all understand each other – or try to, at least – we would get along much better.
Sometimes this miscommunication is between people and objects, as well as just people. The film’s final scene is one of the few times in all his movies in which Haneke makes use of music. He uses the soundtrack of a constant and unending drumbeat to punctuate and add tension to a scene that would otherwise be much less interesting. In this scene, which many refer to as the events leading up to the movie’s opening scene, we see the various characters setting things up directly before the big explosion at the start of the movie. Though this scene does not take place chronologically prior to the opening scene, it seems almost as if Haneke’s using it to explain his theory of living as something circular. If we don’t make an effort to change our chaotic society, we will continue to live in this circular Hell, going round and round through the same horrific tableaux over and over forever.
The miscommunication between people and objects that I spoke of earlier occurs at the very end of the final scene, in which Georges is trying to get into Anne’s apartment building but cannot remember the code. This is of course, where the film’s title comes from, and indeed this scene is making a powerful point, that we are being betrayed by our own technology (Georges is sure Anne gave her the right code), and as well as being locked out from society by our ignorance, we are also being locked out from our own homes and possessions. Our society today is pure insanity, Haneke is saying, and again my mind drifts back to the slide show of images directly subsequent to the opening scene, these images of corruption and violence. On the soundtrack, the photographer Georges is reading a letter to Jean, and to juxtapose such words of familiarity and kindness with such horrific images is only reinforcing Haneke’s idea that our society has lived in this corruption for so long we understand it as normality.
Now, this is not a new message for audiences. Other films have brought it up in the past. But I like the way Haneke discusses and surfaces it with this film. It really is unlike any other. It never uses clichés or predictability to tell its story, and even when vignettes deviate away from the plot for a short time, their message still seems clear and scarily relevant. Mind you, I don’t believe Code Unknown as is cynical a film as I have painted it to be. Certainly it is not a pleasant one, but there is some layer of optimism here, even if it is thin and simple. Consider the aforementioned subway scene: in a truly cynical film the Arabian man wouldn’t have helped Anne, but Haneke is smart enough not to paint all his people as this awful. He uses the Arabian man to betray our expectations of Arabian people. We see the Arabian youths being terrible and so we expect subconsciously in our own mind the Arabian man to be something equally thoughtless, but Haneke challenges and brutally rebukes our prejudices by presenting him as a man who is happy to express kindness and help to someone in need. And when he hands her his handkerchief, sure it is a moment of connection we’ve seen before, but ostensibly the most powerful moment in the film, and an important step on society’s journey to understanding and loving unselfishly.
Code Unknown is available on DVD via Amazon here.
To read other posts in the All-Time Favourites series, click here.