Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown is a series of interrelated vignettes in the lives of people affected by an outburst of violence in the streets of Paris. It consists of several scenes, all separated by a few seconds of blackness, and almost all shot in just one take per scene. Every single scene is absolutely utterly magnificent and powerfully directed and acted.
To pick just one scene from this movie to focus on for this week’s Unforgettable Scenes is a very difficult choice in itself, but the scene that always sticks with me is the penultimate scene, which sees the character of Anne (Juliette Binoche) sitting on a subway train and being harrassed by an Arab youth. The scene lasts five minutes, and contains more raw and unbearable tension than most directors could put into a whole movie. Haneke’s choice to use a static camera is masterful, and the power of this technique is infused into the five-minute shot, a scene few will be able to easily forget.
The film’s main theme is racial tension, and many of the scenes contain it. This is probably the most racially charged of all the scenes, as the Arab youth makes fun of Binoche’s upper-class white status, attempting to humiliate her for no particular reason other than she looks rich and pompous. In reality, she is not. Throughout the film, she is haunted by the realization that a child that lives in the apartment next to her is being physically – perhaps even sexually – abused. There is one absolutely cold and terrifying scene where we see Binoche doing her clothes ironing and hearing the screams and shouts of children in pain coming from the next room. Even though we see nothing, the scene itself feels unbearable to watch.
The subway scene, my favourite scene in the film, is perhaps the most tense scene in any movie ever. The tension is unbelievable, as is the way Haneke distances us from the terrible abuse Binoche is suffering. Right up till the end, this scene holds us and terrifies us. The scariest thing is that things like this happen all the time, and if we’re sitting in a train, we make nothing of it. Well, here Haneke is forcing us to watch it, and confront the fact that society is an amoral beast, preying on the innocent and holding them in its grip. There is no happy ending here.
Watch the scene for yourself: