Code Unknown: An Auto-Dialogue
A: So, as you know, I saw Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown recently.
B: But you’d seen it once before, right?
A: Five years ago. I remember being a little dazed by it, especially its loose structure: 27 scenes, almost all shot in single takes without any cuts, ending brusquely by going to black screen, sometimes in mid-sentence. I realized later that Haneke isn’t interested in simply working on one level (the personal) but simultaneously on several (familial, social, ethnic, political, moral, philosophical), which the amorphous structure of the movie seems to accommodate with great ease.
B: Yes, but the multi-stranded narrative structure isn’t necessarily better at this accommodation than a more defined, even familiar, thriller-genre-derived structure, as in Caché.
A: True. And that speaks to Haneke's versatility and skill. In Code Unknown, despite its structural singularity and sprawling, fragmented narrative, a remarkable coherence emerges. Haneke has spoken of his first three films (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video and 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance) as being his “emotional glaciation” trilogy, but it is clearly a theme that runs through his entire body of work. The idea is that human life in the industrialized Western world is narcotized and frozen. We live our lives separated from reality, without confronting the truths (personal, social, moral) that we should be alive and alert to. The media help maintain us in this frozen state, giving us the bogus “illusion” of truth by pretending to keep us “well-informed” about the world’s realities.
B: Yes. A good example of this glaciated state is the scene in which Anne (Juliette Binoche) is ironing her clothes to the accompaniment of “noise” spilling quietly out of the TV. She hears loud voices, an altercation, a child’s cries, turns off the TV and listens—breaking momentarily out of this glaciated state—but when the neighbors fall silent, she spends a few seconds in quiet thought, then turns the TV back on and resumes ironing. The scene ends the way it began.
A: But what does it take to finally break out of that emotionally sealed-off state into a state of awareness and engagement?
B: Well, in her case, the film shows several “attempts” to rupture the ice curtain, so to speak. The first is the street confrontation at the beginning of the film that unsettles her a bit. Then we see a “false" rupture of her equanimity in front of the camera when she is locked into the room of death. But this occurs in a performance context, which is again sealed off from her real life. What it really takes is the arrival of the letter about an hour into the film. The event is a turning point of sorts for her; she begins to question her actions, and those of Georges. The supermarket scene follows. Then, the laughing fit during the dialogue dubbing scene, a sort of hysteria which indicates that she is no longer able to keep her real life and her performance apart. The rupturing process is underway. Then: the scene in the subway which completes "the melting". (Ice turns to water: she cries.) Anne emerges from the Metro, walks straight home, changes the code. Hopefully, a new (and more alert, aware and sensitized) life begins.
A: Interesting that the arrival of the video in Caché (the rupturing event, and the equivalent of the letter in Code Unknown) occurs at the get-go. Haneke is getting down to business sooner: introducing the alien substance, spending the rest of the movie observing its effects. Once again, the couple in the film are named Georges and Anne…
B: What about the film-within-the-film, The Collector? She describes it to her friends at dinner as a thriller. Is it a by-the-numbers genre film or is it a stand-in for a Haneke film, a sort of Funny Games?
A: It’s possible that Anne thinks it’s a straightforward genre film—an impression supported by the casual, light manner in which she recommends it to her friends—but the words of the serial killer are tellingly spoken by the director behind the camera: “Show me your true face,” he says. (“ton vrai visage.”) This could easily be Haneke initiating the rupture of the character’s composure to obtain, in effect, a "genuinely human" response.
B: Of course, Haneke is also attempting to do to the audience exactly what he is doing to his characters. This is perhaps more viscerally apparent in his other films, like Funny Games, Benny’s Video or Caché, which deliberately assault the audience and break through our coolness and complacency and the separation we feel between our lives and the comfort of what is “just a movie”. He wants his films to disturb us, so that we carry them out of theaters and into our lives like a wound we can’t conveniently forget. But sometimes—and this is not true of Code Unknown—I sense that Haneke derives a little sadistic relish from inflicting this punishment upon us, which bothers me a little. But I guess I admire his films enough to try to overlook this aspect. But: back to Code Unknown. What about the role of the media?
A: Yes. The media is a reliable Haneke bête noire. He worked in television for fifteen years and reserves for it his choicest vitriol. All his films feature TV sets pouring soothing, sedating drivel into homes. And Georges, who works for the media as a war photographer, is frozen-up in his own unique way. “I’m unfit for life in peace,” he confesses, and when a moment of personal reflection about his war experience and his return to “civilization” crops up at dinner with friends (potentially breaking the frozen surface!), it’s quickly interrupted by Anne leaning in and asking for (!) a dentist recommendation. There’s the end of that conversation. And to show Georges’ indifference to the carnage in Kosovo, Haneke juxtaposes his voiceover reading a banal letter home with his horrific still photo images. In Paris, he jerry-rigs his camera to take secret pictures on the subway, a displaced act of aggression, a certain kind of rape, you could argue, a perversion like Erika’s sadomasochistic affliction in The Piano Teacher.
B: Speaking of The Piano Teacher, civilization (Schubert) and barbarism (S&M) go hand in hand in Erika’s life. The room of death in Code Unknown is, let’s not forget, a wood-paneled, acoustically perfect music room. And Time Of The Wolf erases civilization in one quick stroke, leaving only barbarism.
A: We still haven’t talked about the big one: Communication.
B: Yes. Every single household in the film is stricken with communcation struggles. Georges and Anne’s only attempt at communication takes place in the physical space of oppressively ordered and suffocating material objects—the supermarket. The attempt is, not coincidentally, doomed to failure. The film begins with deaf children signing, and ends brilliantly with their reverting, along with their teacher, Amadou, to a pre-verbal state of pure, ecstatic communion/communication using the sound and rhythms of tribalistic drums.
A: Haneke banishes speech, returns to zero, and posits an optimistic building of the future by…children. A happy ending if I ever saw one.
B: I agree. But can I bring up one thing that’s always bothered me a wee bit about Haneke?
B: Don't get me wrong: I think he’s among the great living moviemakers, but that doesn’t make him “immune to skepticism”, right? Here's my point: Haneke is an old-fashioned European moralist. He makes didactic movies that he feels perform a useful social function. (Code Unknown is my favorite of his films partly because it appears to me his least overtly didactic.) This also means that often, after I’ve seen his films a couple of times to untangle their narrative complexities and apprehend their raisons d'existence, the films feel to me like they've...served their purpose, performed their function, exhausted themselves. Further revisits yield—as the economists might put it—“diminishing marginal returns”. The fact is, Haneke’s characters seem like illustrative creations, intended by this stern grey-bearded martinet to teach us cautionary lessons, albeit important ones. This fact will always keep me at a slight remove from his (cold, cerebral and pedagogical) movies, while continuing to admire and appreciate them. Just being honest here.
A: And meanwhile, for your movie revisitation fix there’s always…
B: For one: Jean Renoir—no less true or complex than Haneke but having the unbeatable advantage of being an arch-humanist of the cinema. Renoir will always mean more to me than Haneke, the anti-humanist, ever will.
A: But don’t you see: Haneke makes us swallow the bitter pill because he is ultimately a humanist, even if his means (as in Funny Games) are anti-humanist. Above all, he wants us to see the errors of our ways…
B: Oh shut up.
The CODE UNKNOWN Blog-A-Thon also includes, in alphabetical order:
- Aaron at Cinephiliac.
- Brian at Five Branch Tree.
- Darren at Long Pauses.
- David at Drifting.
- Dennis at Sergio Leone & The Infield Fly Rule.
- Dipanjan at Random Muses.
- Eric at When Canses Were Classeled.
- Filmbrain at Like Anna Karina's Sweater.
- Matt at Esoteric Rabbit.
- Michael Guillen at The Evening Class.
- Michael S. Smith at Culturespace.
- Zach at Elusive Lucidity.