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Vol 3, No 19
28 May 2001
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Michael Haneke's Code inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000) Locked Out!
Michael Haneke's
Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages

Andrew James Horton

Austrian film was having something of a quiet life, bumbling along and not being watched by too many people, when suddenly in 1997 Michael Haneke's film Funny Games convinced people that watchable Austrian cinema was not perhaps an oxymoron after all.

And suddenly not only was a new star of European cinema born but a whole country's film industry was given a new wave of optimism. Turning to Haneke's previous works, film buffs found a richly philosophical oeuvre, tackling some of the most compelling moral questions of our day in a noticeably filmic form.

Now that Haneke has grabbed hold of international attention, he clearly wants to keep it, and his film Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages (Code Unknown: Incomplete tales of several journeys, 2000) again tackles a Big Question in the framework of a consciously art house film. Instead of just merely tackling the problems of Austrian society, here he takes on a wider theme to match the new scale of his audience—immigration in a multicultural Europe—and shifts the action away from his favoured middle-class Austrian settings to a famously cosmopolitan environment: Paris.

Diverging threads

In contrast to Funny Games, Code inconnu consists of a fragmented mosaic of only semi-related events (or in more blunt terms: it has little or no plot). It tracks a group of people linked by one chance encounter: an argument on a street corner which blows up when an young man, Jean,Michael Haneke's Code inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000) contemptuously throws a screwed-up piece of paper at a woman who is begging on a street corner. From this one point, the characters' lives follow—as the subtitle alludes to—different paths.

Anne is trying to make it as a film actress while her boyfriend, Georges, tries to make sense of his profession as a photographer (we are presented first with his stark images of war, taken in Kosovo, and then with an arresting series of shots taken of unsuspecting passengers on the Paris Metro). Georges' brother, Jean, is meanwhile trying to escape from the influence of his father who wants him to take over the family farming business.

Maria, the Romanian beggar at whom Jean callously discards his rubbish, is caught without papers and deported. Back at home she boasts she had a good job as a teacher in Paris and, unphased by the ignominy of the experiences she has gone through, pays money to be smuggled back into fortress Europe again.

The other main protagonist is Amadou, an angry young man of African origin, whom we meet when he takes offence at Jean's treatment Michael Haneke's Code inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000)of Maria. Aside from this street fight, we see him talking to a friend explaining who his father arrived in France and also to his younger sister, who is deaf, in sign language about why their father left.

Finally, these paths converge again for the film's ending, with its prosaic action dramatically set against drumming music being played by the children at the deaf school where Amadou teaches.

In a mirror of the film's main opening sequence, Georges arrives at Anne's flat to find that he no longer knows the security code (presumably the source of the film's title) and is thus denied entry to the sanctuary he requires—a metaphor for the film's wider concerns. Meanwhile, Maria is back on her old street corner.

Alienating fragmentation

Code inconnu is in some ways related to the third film of Haneke's "emotional glaciation" trilogy, 71 Fragmente einer Chronologie des Zufalls (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, 1994) which also uses a dislocated mosaic Michael Haneke's Code inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000)structure to link characters to a single event (a motiveless killing spree in a Vienna bank by a disaffected student). The return to this style is intriguing. 71 Fragmente is by far the least successful of Haneke's trilogy, not in box office terms but in its ability to challenge us intellectually.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the criticisms that could be levelled at 71 Fragmente also resonate with Code inconnu. Both are horribly dry exercises in intellectualism and lack what might be termed the "intellectually visceral" quality of Funny Games or the second of Haneke's trilogy, Benny's Video (1992), both of which challenge our gut instincts rather than our most abstract thoughts. Moreover, Haneke seems so wrapped up in the formal qualities of Code inconnu that the very human message he is trying to give out is totally lost.

Even discounting this alienating factor, the film somehow fails to work, it sitting uncomfortably in the shadow of 71 Fragmente trying hard not to look like a derivative work. "I'm playing with the Michael Haneke's Code inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000)public, and I make them fall into all kinds of traps and show them they've fallen into the trap," the director explained in the May edition of Sight and Sound.

But this is Haneke's sixth feature film, and he is running out of mechanisms to force us to question the power of film as a medium. He resorts to tactics that are now seemingly commonplace in his films, such as suddenly cutting off the dialogue mid-sentence. Even worse, he employs techniques that are universally clichéd, such as showing the making of a film within the film we are watching and trying to confuse us as to which level we are looking at. This, quite frankly, is old hat.

Pulling apart the definitions

Putting aside such concerns over form, however, the way Haneke pieces together his mosaic with steadfast neutrality is remarkable. Time and time again he seeks to present something as "truth" and then undermine it. His philosophical aims (Haneke studied philosophy at university) are to force us to question first the reality we see in the film and—rather more ambitiously—the reality we see around us. In one scene, Anne and Georges have an argument. To force her lover's position, Anne tells him she is pregnant, but then denies it. We have no way of knowing which version is true.

As such, Haneke has no answers to give us on immigration or multiculturalism. He merely urges us to question the reality of the issues around it. In this he does, perhaps, have a major point. Immigration is largely a seen as a subject for political debate and a topic that dominates newspaper headlines. Rarely do we stop to consider the stories of the people behind the statistics, who they are and how the single word "immigrant" describes a multitude of experiences.

Michael Haneke's Code inconnu (Code Unknown, 2000)If there is anything positive Haneke's film can achieve it should be to force us to abandon our predefined and narrow definitions of "immigration" and "multiculturalism" and make us find meaning for them again based on what we see, not on what newspapers tell us. "What matters is the end result," Georges tells us in one of his monologues, and that could be a kind of motto for the film, urging us to look at each situation anew and not fall into the trap of placing things in predefined pigeon holes.

But curiously, if anything, the film's analysis of the lack of community and communication in multicultural Paris seems to have had the opposite of the intended effect. In France, at least, the film has attracted the admiration of the right, as opposed to the usual left-wing gang who admire Haneke's brand of philosophy.

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Perhaps all this explains why Haneke's most recent film La pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001), which just last week scooped three awards at Cannes (including the Grand Prix), returns to the visceral style that characterised Funny Games. Indeed, the director seems to have gone from one wild extreme to the other, and La pianiste has been criticised for being pornographic, degrading and too reliant on excessive violence. It will be interesting to see distributors wrestle with the conflicting desires to appease public good taste by keeping the film off our screens and to make loads of loot by cashing in on a major prize.

Doubtless, in the meantime, Code inconnu will receive something of a boost from its successor's fame (Code inconnu opened in the UK on 25 May) and some punters will be attracted merely by the presence of art house pin-up Juliette Binoche in the cast list. However, it is unlikely that the film itself is going to turning much of the cinema- going public into a new wave of Haneke fans.

Andrew James Horton, 28 May 2001

Corrections added 4 June. Thanks to Thibaut Lespagnol of the College of Europe, Brugges, for pointing out the errors.

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Safe Haven

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Poland's Slow Politicians

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Slovenia's Summit

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Karmakar's Manila

Andrew James Horton
Code inconnu

Bernhard Seliger
Estonia and Europe

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Sow and Reap

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Shedding the Balkan Skin

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Czech Historical Amnesia

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Out of Time

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Hungarian Oil Scandal

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After the Rain

Czech Republic

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