“Code Unknown” – The Fractured Quality of Urban Life

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In a prologue-like, opening scene of Michael Haneke’s uncompromising & challenging feature “Code Unknown” (2000), a 7 or 8 year old girl dreadfully looks at the screen, and slowly retreats to a wall behind. She turns herself facing the wall, but constantly looks back as if a monster is lurking around the corner. This apprehensive expression on the girl’s face best explains what the viewer’s reaction might be after watching “Code Unknown” or any of Haneke’s other films. Director Michael Haneke is an unrelenting anthropologist, who has made many masterpieces on the alienated & isolated identity of modern people.

The little girl in that opening sequence is actually standing in a classroom and playing a game of charades. The children, in an attempt to answer the girl’s action utter various words like ‘Imprisonment’, ‘loneliness’, ‘fear’ etc, but she nods her head side to side, signaling a ‘no’. The shot immediately cuts to black, showing us the film title. At the end of this film, a viewer reaction would be very much like that of the classroom of children, trying to find out ‘what’s it about’. In fact, Michael Haneke has sort of included the words ‘Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys’ to the title ‘Code Unknown’ to imply that his work is as difficult to comprehend as navigating our way through modern life.


On the outset, this film could be described as intertwining stories of seemingly unrelated characters. But, unlike Alejandro Innarittu’s works or Paul Haggis’ “Crash”, the story branches out in jagged fragments, cutting to black at a least expected moment. It doesn’t offer any kind of closure, easy or hard. However, Haneke’s humanistic view point keeps us engaging, despite the fact that all his characters are the most detached beings on the face of the planet. Interlacing stories often start with providing a robust character sketch. It would vividly depict the class, economic status of the character along with their personal wounds. As the story moves forward, the characters from different backgrounds converge at a point.

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“Code Unknown” is a sort of polar reverse to that typical scenario. An elegant tracking shot at the start, provides us little glimpse into the status & nature of the key players. A rattled teenager named Jean (Alexander Hamidi) comes to Paris and meets his sister-in-law, Anne (Juliette Binoche) on the streets. Anne, an actress, tells Jean that his brother, Georges (Thierry Neuvic) had gone abroad, and then recites the code to her house’s lock. She also buys Jean something to eat from a nearby bakery. Jean has run away from his father & his farm. He hates to do the back-breaking work in the farm, which his father hopes for him to inherit.

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Jean’s elder brother Georges works as a war photographer and often travels to dangerous places on Earth. Agitated Jean crumples the bakery paper and scornfully throws it into the lap of an elderly beggar woman, Maria (Luminita Gheorghiu), who is also seems to be an illegal immigrant. A well-meaning African-French guy, Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke) starts a furious row with Jean for the disdainful behavior towards the beggar. He asks Jean to apologize, which only leads to a altercation and brings the police. The police arrest the Amadou for creating nuisance, and deport the woman to her afflicted native nation, Romania. Jean goes free to do his deadening job in the farm. Through this small incident, we are drawn in to look at the lives of these characters along with the ones related to them. Scene by scene, Haneke imbues insights into the various lives, detailing the soul-crunching nature of modern city living.

Lack of communication and ignorance are some of recurring themes in Haneke’s films. Failure of communicate lies at the heart of every larger social conflicts to more intimate quarrels (between couples or families). Jean and his father seem to have lost their power of speech whenever they share a space. Haneke shows us the father unloading a motorbike from his truck. He then slowly walks into his barn. The camera doesn’t show us the conversation that would have taken place inside regarding the bike. Seconds later, Jean comes out, starts his bike and rides away. Haneke obscures the joy, which might have been there in the boy’s face. Haneke showcases how a beloved act of father buying a bike to his son would seem bleak because of uncommunicative nature.

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In some other scenes, Haneke portrays the inappropriate ways we humans communicate with one another. In the supermarket scene, Anne furiously asks to Georges “Have you ever made anyone happy?” and then seconds later, Anne’s face contorts in shame for asking that question. In other situations, Haneke masks the meaning in a communication. For example, in the same super-market scene, Anne says she was pregnant and did an abortion, and then says it was all a lie. We, the viewers’ couldn’t guess what the truth is because the camera is at the back of Anne’s head, blotting out her emotions. In the movie’s most dispiriting scene, a couple of Arab boys on the subway harass Anne, complaining that she is a racist. The verbal attacks leads to the boys’ hatefully spitting at her face. A middle-aged Arab man comes to her assistance, who remains deeply shaken. But, once again the camera hides the boy’s face from us as the middle-aged guy shouts at him.

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Haneke deliberately weaves these frustrating shots to give us a sense of something incomplete or as if we are missing a vital code for the giant puzzle. It all relates to that prologue scene, where the children with all their sophisticated, learned words couldn’t breakdown the meaning for little girl’s action, which on the face of it seems something easy. Through the disjointed & glacial narrative form, Haneke is encouraging us to come up with various interpretation on what this movie is about. To understand many of the expansive and bewildering scenes in the movie, repeated viewings are a must (black-and-white subway photographs and the dialogues accompanying it continues to baffle me).

Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown” (118 minutes) is a meditative movie experience that demands a great investment of our attention. It is a humanist look at the city life, where hate, negligence, and alienation seem to brood over the atmosphere.


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