Code Unknown sees Michael Haneke, perhaps better known as the director of the dark and disturbing Funny Games, tackling the implications of a globalized world in which multiculturalism is an unfortunate source of conflict. Characters and their stories weave in and out of a rich tapestry in which minor incidents in one life influence another’s.
The ramifications of an action, unknown to the character, prove to have devastating, life changing effects. No, it’s not an uplifting movie by any means — Haneke just isn’t that type of filmmaker — but underneath its outward gloominess is a loving treatment of the interconnectedness of human lives.
The complexly interwoven stories are those of Anne (Juliette Binoche), an actress, who by chance meets her boyfriend’s younger brother, Jean (Alexandre Hamidi). Jean, while walking around, gets into an altercation with Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), the child of Malian immigrants. Said altercation results in a beggar, Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu) being deported to her native Romania. These stories, along with the story of Anne’s war photographer boyfriend, Georges (Thierry Neuvic) and his unnamed father (Josef Bierbichler) continuously flow into one another fluidly.
In a director’s introduction provided on the Criterion release, Haneke clues the audience in on his intentions. To paraphrase: “the inability of film and documentary to communicate ‘truth’” and the fact that “we only ever see a small part of the true story”. At all times, the movie is playing with this theme in ingenious ways. At one point, we are shown a terrifyingly tense scene of a child about to jump off a building. We move back, and it’s simply a film being projected for two of the characters. Haneke’s manipulation of the audience makes the film work. Just as we believe one thing, the truth of it is revealed.
So, while the film appears at first to be a piece of realism, even this is but a subversion. Haneke is insistent that film, no matter how hard it tries, can never capture reality. Even as the camera captures wonderful naturalistic images devoid of pretense, Haneke makes sure to contrast this with moments of film’s deceptiveness, as with the previously mentioned scenes or the artificial, jarring fades to black. In Haneke’s view, the problem of communication is that it never conveys the truth of something. There’s always a reality hiding beneath the surface.
Haneke’s probing questions into the limits of communication characterize the entirety of the film, and each individual story is both the manifestation of this theme as well as a contained, well-executed slice of drama. From the racial tensions involving Amadou to the doubt surrounding Georges’ career, all the stories are compelling, well-acted, and thoughtful.
The wonderful camerawork provided to us by Jürgen Jürges reinforces the film’s thematic cohesion with its visual fluidity. Composed with an abundance of long takes, it helps to create the impression of reality, even as Haneke is rallying against that very thing. Code Unknown is a balancing act, holding the audience in constant suspense, subverting expectations, revealing either truth or an impression of it.
The film works well due primarily to this ultimate cohesion that binds it together. Themes and characters reoccur seamlessly, giving the impression of a living, breathing world with depth. It would be a stretch to call the film uplifting or hopeful, but there’s an optimistic quality to the way Haneke insists on exploring the unseen human stories. Lacking the darkness of Funny Games or Benny’s Video, it’s a great entry point to his filmography, serving as a good example of Haneke’s visual and thematic style.
If it seems too much like an exercise in filmmaking, or like an experiment with no backbone, that too is an illusion. Haneke’s stories, and his handling of them, functions well as a conventional narrative. It’s emotionally resonant, drawing the audience in through relatable, complex characters. But again, this narrative handling only helps insofar it gives the audience an anchoring point, a frame of reference from which they can be invested in the movie, giving it time to play out before approaching it from the intended critical lens.
Code Unknown is one of Haneke’s most approachable films. It’s both entertaining and intellectually rich, and the question it raises about truth in representation are particularly relevant in a world so intensely mediated by what we see through film and television. The newest release put out by the ever-excellent Criterion Collection boasts a predictably robust collection of extras including Haneke interviews as well as a making-of documentary, and the restored digital transfer is clean and crisp while still retaining the film’s gloomy visual aesthetic.