Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke
Cinematographer: Jurgen Jurges
by Jon Cvack
“My films are intended as polemical statements against the American 'barrel down' cinema and its dis-empowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.” - Michael Haneke
The extended title is Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys. Like most of Haneke’s early work the story's structured with fragments of multiple storylines, all providing glimpses, often voyeuristic, into each of the characters lives; a style that would boom during the late 90s and early 00s with films such as Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Summer of Sam, Babel, 21 Grams, etc. The film opens with a long take in which a homeless woman is accosted by a teenager Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), which causes an immigrant Amadou (Omou Lu Yenke) to interfere, elevating the situation and causing the police to get involved as it breaks out into violence. We're not really sure what to make of the situation, relying only on our own stereotypes of these characters and passing judgment accordingly. The film then follows each of these character's lives as it leads up this moment.
We’re introduced to Jean's mother Anne (Juliette Binoche) as she looks directly into the camera, appearing threatened; locked in the room by a predatory recorder. We quickly learn it’s all part of a movie she’s rehearsing. This theme continues throughout the film - we're presented with a subjective situation, only to learn that we were mistaken and learn the objective reality.
As the quote above indicates, Haneke’s style revolves around deconstructing cinematic language, relying on long, uninterrupted takes for many of his early projects . In a THR interview for Amour (2012; see below) he criticizes Spielberg for making entertainment out of the shower scene in Schindler’s List. While I completely disagree, and actually think Spielberg allowed his viewers to get as close as possible to the fear some of the victim’s might have experienced - granted we're still wildly far away - nevertheless, Spielberg allowed us to learn what it must have been like, and I can personally say any time I hear the word genocide I recall the fear that Spielberg presented, not that every mass murdering regime uses showers as Hitler did, but rather the horrific lengths humans can resort to in attempting destroying one another. For Haneke to somehow feel morally superior in using long takes and minimal editing, while terrifying in his film Benny’s Video and other work, I don’t believe it's necessarily any more effective in presenting ideas.
Clearly Haneke enjoys the distance he takes from his subjects. We are presented with life as it’s occurring and his films demand that we figure out the patterns and relationships. I enjoyed Code Unknown because I enjoy Haneke’s style, though we’re now seeing him revert to more traditional formats via The White Ribbon and Amour, which coincidentally, were his best received films.
We as human beings operating within a diverse culture should take more time to understand that there are more to the individuals we meet on a daily basis than what we see at face value. Like David Foster Wallace’s This is Water, Haneke allows us to see the other side of our assumptions, and hopes that we’ll carry this into our own lives. As with DFW’s idea that we never know what the cashier or other annoyed patron or gas-guzzling SUV owning person is truly going through and it’s wrong to pass judgement, Code Unknown shows that we are forced into these assumptions by the codes we're inculcated with from our earliest days. Black means X, poor Native language speaker means Y, homeless person means Z, and our approach to them will carry out according to the cultural norms and willful ignorance.
The issue is that the people that need to see this film probably wouldn’t enjoy it. The viewers who appreciate this more dense, high brow art probably have the empathy and wouldn’t pass judgment on these individuals any way. Say what you will about Spielberg, he makes incredibly difficult material accessible. And that’s important. Art can be for the individual, sure, but I believe it’s best served when accessible to all. Profound ideas presented in challenging styles won’t accomplish what it should. I enjoy Haneke’s films, I just think that the in order to change the ‘consumptive and consensus’ driven general public they need something that is more easily digested. I imagine Haneke would disagree. But then isn’t it all a lost cause? If he’s rebelling against this established American cinema language, what is he hoping to accomplish by making his films so abstract? That’s just complaining to complain. That’s not trying to enlighten.
BELOW: Haneke shares his thoughts on making movies about Hitler
Thoughts on films, old and new
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