Code Unknown: Eurovisions

On Film / Essays — Nov 12, 2015
Code Unknown image

To watch Code Unknown today is to experience the shock of its political prescience. Since as far back as his TV movie Fraulein (1986), Michael Haneke has used contemporaneous television news broadcasts as a form of punctuation in his narratives. When we watch his films in later years, these broadcasts remind us, in their sensationalized manner, of the moment in history when each film was made. In the case of the Paris-set Code Unknown, it was when atrocities committed during the vicious ethnic conflicts in what was then Yugoslavia were being exposed. But watching the film now also offers a reverse effect: events current in today’s news broadcasts seem to amplify and confirm what Haneke was describing in 2000.

Regularly featured on the TV news at the time of this writing were these two “stories”: Africans desperate to get to Europe were either drowning in or being rescued from flimsy, overcrowded boats launched into the Mediterranean by traffickers; and Greek EU citizens were being made destitute by the very European leaders they’d thought were there to protect their interests. Both of these appalling situations are akin to the central concerns of Code Unknown, and might even have supplied material for it. Although the film is an artfully fragmented work, consisting of forty-two discrete scenes, divided by cuts to black, that constantly try to pull the rug out from under our expectations, the tension between Northern European citizens and immigrant populations is its overriding theme.

That tension manifests itself in the film’s first proper scene, a continuous take lasting more than nine minutes, in which Anne (Juliette Binoche), an actor, bumps into Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), the disaffected younger brother of her boyfriend, Georges (Thierry Neuvic), in the street outside her building, where he’s been waiting because he’s got the wrong door code. She buys him a pastry and reluctantly gives him the keys to her apartment. Jean eats the pastry, scrunches up the paper bag, and drops it into the lap of Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu), a middle-aged Romanian beggar sitting cross-legged in a corner. He starts to leave, but Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a young teacher of African descent, insists he should apologize. When Jean refuses and tries to break away, Amadou forcibly detains him, attracting the attention of Anne, who naturally takes Jean’s side, and the police, who eventually arrest Amadou and Maria.

The fateful consequences rippling out from this event inform most of Code Unknown’s fragments—the film’s French subtitle translates as “Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys”—and Haneke’s analytical presentation, which, as always, refuses to “think for us,” makes us aware of the forces then straining, now tearing at the fragile, or perhaps imaginary, connective tissue of Europe and its cities. We are shown the tendentious life of Amadou’s extended family, his taxi-driver father, deaf sister, superstitious mother, and bullied younger brother, and their attitude toward his white girlfriend; Maria’s deportation back to Romania (then not an EU member country, now a supposedly troublesome one) and the pressures there for her to return to the streets of Paris; and how ineffectual the consciences of Anne and Georges are when she suspects that unseen violence is being done to her neighbor’s child and he talks about life being simpler in the war zones of Yugoslavia.

One might plausibly consider the sum of the film’s fragments as a map for the political, social, and psychological ills of our globalized world, one made not of symbols but of clues and forceful hints. Such clues have been consistently ­supplied by Haneke’s films from the beginning of his career, but Code Unknown marks a moment of readjustment and transition, in terms of not only the scope of its treatment of social and political themes but also his relationship to cinema’s aesthetic techniques. This is the work in which Haneke’s intellectually rigorous background in theater and television comes to a more fluent fruition in the new context of French art-house cinema.

Haneke was born in 1942 into a theatrical family—his mother, an actor; his father, a theater director—and was raised much of the time by an aunt in Wiener Neustadt, an industrial city south of Vienna. He had youthful ambitions to be an actor or a concert pianist. Biographical details are scarce because he has always preferred not to discuss his personal life, so that personal confidences can’t inflect how his films are viewed, a stance consistent with the moral rigor of his work. Still, his family background makes it unsurprising that the young Haneke put on plays as a student at University of Vienna, where he ended up studying psychology, philosophy, and drama.

After a brief period (1967–70) working for Germany’s Südwestrundfunk (SWR) television and separately as a film and literary critic, Haneke began to direct professionally for the stage. The plays he chose are the first indication of his analytical, antibourgeois critical interests—Marguerite Duras’s Whole Days in the Trees, Heinrich von Kleist’s The Broken Jug, Friedrich Hebbel’s Maria Magdalena, August Strindberg’s The Father, Ferdinand Bruckner’s Pains of Youth, Per Olov Enquist’s The Night of the Tribades. In 1974, SWR invited him back to direct a television adaptation of After Liverpool, a British play by James Saunders made up of a suite of pieces about failed conversations whose order of presentation is not specified. Already Haneke was drawn to broken-up works, the architecture of which is a crucial element, and failure to communicate a key theme.

The television films Haneke made in the seventies and eighties are not easy to see, yet many of their elements look toward the synthesis we observe in Code Unknown. For instance, his 1976 adaptation of Ingeborg Bachmann’s short story “Three Paths to the Lake” concerns a war photographer—the profession Georges has in Code Unknown—who may have missed an encounter with the person who would have changed her life. Already this early film forces the viewer to work out the storyline from oblique hints and clues. Lemmings, Part 1—Arcadia (1979), an oedipal drama set in Wiener Neustadt in 1959, shows Haneke experimenting with long takes, and examining the distancing coolness of expression for which his films have since become notorious. Variation (1983) marks the first time (I think) that the key protagonists, a journalist and a teacher, are named some version of Anne and Georges (Anna and Georg, in this case), as they are in most of Haneke’s auteurist films, including Code, and it uses the theater itself as a model for its melodramatic game playing.

The key scene of Die Rebellion (1993), an adaptation of a Joseph Roth novel, is like a dry run for Code Unknown’s street confrontation described above. In it, Andreas Pum, a World War I veteran turned organ-grinder, takes a sudden, verbal dislike to a bourgeois gentleman aboard a tram; the conductor allies with the gentleman and asks Andreas to leave; he resists and is dragged off, while people yell “Jew” and “Bolshevik”; and he then has his license taken away by the police.

Though they are formally different, Haneke’s television films share something of the spirit of the work of his lesser-known contemporaries in the nascent new Austrian cinema of the time: Franz Novotny, Peter Patzak, Christian Berger, and Wolfram Paulus. According to critic Catherine Wheatley, “A key term of this cinema is ­abreagieren (giving vent to frustration), encompassing violence within the petit bourgeois family, silent rages and sexual humiliations, a culture of resentment that leads to racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitic aggression, all phenomena that have marred Austria’s liberal self-image.” Formally, however, Haneke’s films are influenced by the European masters most concerned with structural innovation—Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Fellini, and Godard—in particular the distancing devices of modernism.

Haneke’s commitment to these devices reached its full intensity when he turned to making feature films. His first, The Seventh Continent (1989), covers three separate days from three consecutive years in the life of a self-destructive family, and concentrates on individual objects more intently even than Bresson. It’s shot and edited to disorient the viewer; there are constant cuts to black of the kind that separate Code’s scenes. Benny’s Video (1992), ostensibly a portrait of a deeply troubled youth but actually an anatomy of family power relations, insists that the viewer pay close attention to how scenes are set up, what’s said, and where the camera is. But it is 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (1994), the third entry in what has become known as Haneke’s “glaciation” trilogy—after Haneke described the films as “reports on the progression of the emotional glaciation of my country”—that looks and feels most like a model for Code Unknown, except that it’s in reverse. Where Code follows the consequences of a dramatic public incident, 71 Fragments shows us the people who will come to be affected by one.

The film that first established Haneke as an international auteur name was Funny Games (1997), a lacerating, menacing parody of a home invasion thriller. When it was shown at Cannes, audiences were devastated by its provocative psychological cruelty. This was the first time the wider film press had encountered Haneke’s anti-Hollywood stance toward portraying violence—it’s left offscreen, to one’s own imagination, unlike the convincing on-screen terror of those who will be the victims of it. In that one year, Haneke seemed to set the blueprint for Lars von Trier’s future of providing the necessary annual Cannes succès de scandale. Yet, despite its impact, Funny Games in retrospect seems like Haneke’s passport to a different level of achievement rather than his arrival there.

Up to and including Funny Games, Haneke’s films had been palpably mechanistic, in the sense that their architecture was an obtrusive element of their provocation. In Code Unknown, however, his filmmaking feels more discreetly taunting, and yet the impact on our thoughts and feelings is, if anything, stronger. The film’s producer, Marin Karmitz of MK2, had an influence on its direction. He has recounted that Haneke “came to Paris to investigate African immigration, and I pushed him to go and look also at the area of Romanian beggars.” The kind of polish that a Karmitz production had brought to Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy is evident here, including the francophone cast led by a famous actress, Juliette Binoche. The way that the fragments follow each other seems to have a new fluidity—and with the exception of the prologue and epilogue scenes, and the film within the film, all the other scenes are shot in a single take—despite the regulation cuts to black.

Take, for instance, these three con­secutive scenes: (1) an African taxi driver gets a phone call about an emergency that means he has to let out his fare; (2) we see a video image of Anne in a room and hear an audible instruction to begin a rehearsal, then she begins to perform the terror of being locked in an inescapable room; and (3) a rough-looking middle-aged man is cooking in a farmhouse kitchen, Jean comes in, and, with hardly a word exchanged, the man serves him food and they sit together and eat in silence. As in Haneke’s earlier works, we are expected to deduce that the taxi driver is Amadou’s father learning of his arrest, that Anne’s portrayed fear has nothing to do with her real anxieties, and that the middle-aged man is Jean’s father. Watching intently as people eat is a regular Haneke trope, but usually there’s an anthropological feel to the observation. Here, in all these scenes, there’s a slight raising of the emotional temperature, a warmth and fluidity to the camera moves, lighting, and cuts that seem altogether fresher and more tantalizing.

Another sign of this allowance of cinematic pleasure is the fact that Haneke shot the opening nine-minute, single-­take scene on dolly tracks parallel to the boulevard, with the camera pulling and pushing focus in a mixture of long and medium shots. Haneke is a true cinephile, and he understands the French debates around the morality of tracking shots, how their misuse will tend to sensationalize horror; it is sufficient in this case that the camera follows the action as if it were a proscenium arch on wheels, that the very length and consistency of the shot make it feel simultaneously realistic and fabricated. And the sequence of still images from the Yugoslav Wars that comes immediately after prevents us from sinking into the illusion that we’re watching a social-realist melodrama.

This constant striving for alternatives to the approaches of, say, Kieślowski or the Dardenne brothers is, of course, what makes Haneke unique. The new production circumstances of Code Unknown gave him the space and budget to retry and perfect some of the thematic strategies risked in the glaciation trilogy, but it is the ­combination of the fates of semi-established African residents in Paris with those of Romanians in the country illegally and begging in the streets that makes the film feel more global in scope than his earlier work.

The Piano Teacher (2001), Haneke’s next film after Code, finally won him the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, thereby cementing his status as a major international auteur. He remained for that film under Karmitz’s aegis and cast another French movie star, Isabelle Huppert, as his lead, yet returned to Austrian subject matter—an adaptation of his compatriot Elfriede Jelinek’s novel about a severely cold sexual relationship. By the time he made Time of the Wolf (2003), in which Huppert is part of a family stranded by ecological disaster, Haneke seemed native to a French milieu. His return to the immigration theme with Caché (2005), in which another French Anne (played again by Binoche) and Georges (Daniel Auteuil) experience a psychological act of terrorism, demonstrated the sophistication of his francophone confidence by focusing in on the inherently French legacy of the Algerian War of Independence.

But it was Code Unknown that first enabled that wider sense of authorial command and that eventually led to the pair of Palmes d’Or Haneke won for The White Ribbon (2009) and Amour (2012). To use a major movie star like Binoche, give her no psychological “character” to play with, and yet draw from her a set of stunning performances for the camera—ranging from extreme restraint to abject terror to sudden silent pleasure at the return of her lover to explosive irritation with him in a supermarket to enjoyment of the camaraderie of dubbing a love scene with a fellow actor—demonstrates a sensitivity he has rarely been given credit for. Code Unknown does not enact compassion on our behalf; it is instead brilliantly effective at ­making us pay attention to people who are passed over or cast aside, so that we can draw on our own compassion.