Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, the director’s 2000 follow-up to his brilliant 1997 film Funny Games, opens on group of deaf children playing sign-language charades. It’s an oddly provocative opening, in that it instantly leaves one to speculate where such a scene is heading, and yet is curiously soon forgotten as the film proper begins, only to be recalled again at the very end of the movie. While this may appear as an arbitrary insertion of an apparently irrelevant parenthesis, there proves to be more to the inclusion than one could initially gather when the scene is first presented. It would indeed be impossible to understand its full significance until the film concludes, for like these children attempting to guess the phrase or word mimicked by another, Code Unknown is itself about figuring out behavior, trying to deduce and comprehend the meaning behind individual actions and expressions, to solve a cryptic code of conduct and human interaction.
Haneke assigns Code Unknown the subheading of “incomplete tales of several journeys,” an apt accompaniment given the fragmentary nature of the film. Certain scenes stop and start abruptly, many without any sort of establishing shot or concluding narrative signal; the vignettes, in their singular, isolated presentation, do feel occasionally incomplete. But as the stories gradually evolve amidst a montage of spatial and temporal shifts and character (re)introductions, a larger world begins to form. Spanning diverse locations over an indeterminate period, Haneke paints a broad multicultural picture, one that has as its basic grounding a preliminary sequence introducing the primary characters, from there branching off to side stories providing prior and succeeding context.
Juliette Binoche plays Anne Laurent, an actress who one day runs into Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), the younger brother of her war correspondent boyfriend, Georges (Thierry Neuvic). After going their separate ways, Jean callously tosses some trash at Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu), a vagrant sitting on the sidewalk. Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a Malian immigrant, sees the offense and confronts the boy. They fight, the police are called, and Anne takes Jean while Maria and Amadou are arrested; she is deported to Romania and he is harassed though subsequently released. From this initiating action, the film follows each of the characters as they deal with the direct and more subtle repercussions of the incident.
When Anne first encounters Jean, he says he tried to get into her apartment but the code was changed, and when he tried to call her, all he got was her answering machine. Like the averting of this intended communication, Code Unknown is concerned with connections both missed and made. Haneke charts these people and the way they interact as perceptively as he covers the places they inhabit. In choosing to film in long, single takes, with the actors’ movements dictating the direction of the camera more so than any sort of strictly ornamental design, he shows a world that vividly comes alive as any given scene unfolds. As the main characters come and go, interacting with their surroundings, this uncut stylistic choice allows us to also witness others around them, and we are invited to consider the stories of these strangers as well, especially those in the more populated public places (an original title for the project was, in fact, “Strangers”). There are often those who, though on the periphery of the primary narrative, nevertheless make an impression. Some are up to no good, others want to do the right thing; one scene with Anne on the metro shows both facing off. As the full significance of those to whom we are introduced is not necessarily clear at first—their back-story, motivations, and personality traits only developing as the film continues—we find ourselves uncertainly drawing conclusions of character. Much like those in the film, we identify features and inferences based on our own assumptions and even prejudices. Anne’s occupation as an actress is a symbolically revealing one, giving the implied suggestion that she, like everyone else, is essentially playing a part in a larger drama. Think of Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.” The parts here, and their respective scenes, range from the dramatic (Anne hearing apparent child abuse) to the banal (she does so while ironing), the two often mingling as in life.
With its expansive structure, Code Unknown looks at the respective issues of both adults and children, and in its surveying fragments, we see lives marked by moments of minutia and downtime and moments of great anxiety, from plowing a field to attending a funeral, and everything in-between. There are those who live lives of relative comfort versus those who live lives of hardship and struggle. In this film that brings together multiple points of view concerning Europe’s immigrant culture, Haneke, who was himself making his first feature outside his native Austria, is also examining the impact of diversity, in terms of cultural, economical, and generational collision. In classic Haneke style, it’s not always a pleasant merger, but it is chaotically realistic (though he does call the film his “mildest”). And as per his norm, Code Unknown achieves its emotional potency due to a steadfast simplicity, a direct presentation of behavior with all its blemishes. As much as his camera may give the spectator the impression of observational objectivity, however, several of the characters find themselves in conflict over whether or not they should get involved in the problems of others; should they stand up for one who has been wronged and defend the innocent, or should they sit back and disengage from the troubling world? The “code,” then, could also be the unclear rules that govern a society, the shared conventions that influence and guide behavior. Jean may have been disrespectful, but should his actions be necessarily countered by violence? That’s not the answer either. So what is? As the title of the film suggests, that code is unknown.
This type of multi-character, multi-leveled narrative is a somewhat familiar construct, but one with endless variations. And under Haneke’s continually clever direction, the result is one of the most formally audacious and ambiguous attempts at such a character-driven mosaic. As with Funny Games three years prior, Code Unknown was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Though it would lose out to Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, it ultimately came away with a special Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and further established Haneke as a major figure in the world of international cinema.