Thanks to the 2016 presidential election and all the socio-cultural detritus that’s been stirred up in its miserable wake, it is a strikingly perfect time to look back at the world of Code Unknown, the outstanding and little-known film by the masterful Michael Haneke. Shot in 2000, Code Unknown is about several characters intersecting in Paris over one rather minor incident on the street and ultimately explores how challenging it is for a modern city to positively and easily host a diverse group of people from wildly different countries, religions, classes, and cultural backgrounds.
The film opens with a prologue in a deaf children’s classroom, where a girl acts something out and her young deaf classmates sign guesses as to what she was trying to portray. Sadness? No. Being alone? No. After several more guesses and an increasingly beleaguered-looking young girl, frustrated with not being understood, Haneke cuts to black. The film is bookended with this scene, stressing that even with the commonalities they share, people fail to understand each other no matter how impassioned the endeavor to communicate.
The opening scene is a humdinger: one long, ten-minute single take, a moving shot along a busy Paris street. Juliette Binoche walks with her boyfriend’s petulant younger brother, who eventually throws a crumpled up bag in a homeless Romanian woman’s lap. A Franco-Malian immigrant (Amadou) intervenes and says he should be more polite, and to apologize to the Romanian woman. This quickly escalates into a fight and the police get involved in the skirmish, eventually carting the Romanian and Malian immigrants to the police station where we later learn Amadou was egregiously held and beaten, and the Romanian immigrant (Maria) was subsequently deported.
The film is freakishly relevant today, as we watch the crumbling aftermath of the false idealism of the American Dream fracture between people that still feverishly believe it to be possible and those that work against it in every way possible. Nearly two decades later, Haneke’s shrewd illustration of the failures of a multi-ethnic modern culture is basically one long, beautiful metaphor for the fallacies of the idealism of the melting pot.
The film is freakishly relevant today, as we watch the crumbling aftermath of the false idealism of the American Dream fracture between people that still feverishly believe it to be possible and those that work against it in every way possible.
Haneke said of Code Unknown, “Since my films are supposed to be realistic, I try to avoid a sort of fake harmonization that depicts beauty in the traditional sense by creating beautiful images. I think true beauty is accuracy. Accurate images are important, not beautiful ones. Beautiful images belong in a museum, not in a realistic film.”
Haneke achieves this illustration of the failed melting pot by constructing the film via a series of blackout vignettes that are all one long take from each character’s perspective. He does this with a master plan purpose, neither to posture nor academically dull the senses but rather to awaken the viewer to the realism of each of these events happening before them. Every intersecting event in the film is based on real incidents that either happened to Haneke or that he was told firsthand from other people that he became involved with in the Romanian and African immigrant communities while writing the script.
Haneke asserted, ““Cinema always means manipulation. Everyone knows that. Every camera position is a manipulation in and of itself. But one can at least eliminate the manipulation of the time factor with a sequence shot or fixed time shot…The viewers are not mere consumers who are permitted to watch predigested images. They themselves bring the film to completion. The film emerges in their heads, not on the screen.”
The viewer in this way becomes an unsuspecting part and parcel to the events as they unfold in real time before them, forced to question their role in a multi-ethnic contemporary society as well. What would they have done, on that street, had they seen that young boy disrespect the homeless Romanian woman the way that kid did? Would they have come to the Malian kid’s defense when the police began acting aggressively towards him, a propos of nothing?
I think true beauty is accuracy. Accurate images are important, not beautiful ones. Beautiful images belong in a museum, not in a realistic film.”
A later scene on a train is equally devastating, as a couple of Middle Eastern teenagers pester Juliette Binoche’s character, baiting her, flirting with her, going way over the line of propriety. Not a single person on the train comes to her defense, and she herself sits silently, eventually moving to the other side of the train. One of the kids follows her, sits next to her in silence for so many uncomfortable moments it’s a wonder the viewers don’t consistently try to jump through the screen to take her hand and walk her out.
The kid looks over at her mournfully, and says, “I’m just a little Arab looking for a little affection, like everybody else.” He spits on her, and runs off the train, but not before the man seated on the other end of the aisle from Binoche kicks him as he gets off the train, a feeble yet gallant gesture from an older man who is also a Middle Eastern immigrant. “Shame on you!” he calls out to the kid as he exacts one last prank on them both, scaring them both so suddenly that Binoche at last bursts into tears, unable to hold back the shock welling inside her from being harassed and spat on by a total stranger.
Nearly two decades on, it is clear that these issues so evenly and compassionately and tensely depicted by Haneke are not going anywhere. Until we find a way to evict the tribalism so natural (and necessary) to our early species and forgo it for the modernized co-existent diversity that has been haphazardly in effect for centuries, we will be on the Code Unknown carousel, forever spinning around un-merrily, clinging for dear life onto the horses we’ve claimed for ourselves, with an apathetic, jaded ticket-taker casting his eyes the other way as we fight over the horse with the best view, the prettiest paint, the most luxurious ride with the velvet saddle.
So much of this country has been subscribing for too long to the false polemic that there is not enough of the pie to go around, to hang on tight to what you’ve got and while you’re at it, deny the others that not only need it, but deserve it, too. Haneke makes us gently implicit in this ceaseless storyline, one that’s more germane than ever in our contemporary country, positively cleaved down the middle. What will we do to change this story at last? How will we act?
“Filmmaking is like a ski jump. You have to build a good jump, but viewers have to take the leap, and how far they get depends on how good your ski jump is,” Haneke smiles, urging us with his cinematic tools.