The films of Michael Haneke often seem more like a trial than a pleasure. They often focus on social issues, exposing the evils and irrationalities of human interactions. However, no Haneke film could ever be described as a “message film.” The director refuses to suggest simple solutions to the difficult issues he has laid out, and many of his films are filled with complex, flawed characters, rather than more traditional villains and saviors. Code Unknown (2000), Haneke’s first film to be produced in his adopted cinematic homeland of France, was an artistic breakthrough for Haneke that approached issues of immigration and xenophobia with a newfound subtlety often lacking in his prior films.
Code Unknown tracks the aftermath of an urban confrontation informed by racism, xenophobia, and youthful rage. On the way to an audition, Anne (played by Juliette Binoche) runs into her boyfriend’s younger brother Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), who has run away from his father’s farm and a rural life he despises. Anne politely informs Jean that there isn’t room for him to stay at her place. Once she leaves, Jean throws a wadded up wrapper on Maria (Luminiţa Gheorghiu), a homeless Romanian woman. Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a second-generation Malian immigrant, witnesses the indignity and orders Jean to apologize to the woman, which quickly devolves into a physical altercation. Anne sees the confrontation and defends Jean without knowing any of what happened. When the police arrive, rather than investigating what Jean has done, they take Amadou into custody and round up Maria for deportation back to Romania. These characters occasionally come close to meeting again, sometimes even being in the same area, but never interact for the rest of the film. The opening scene is a single nine-minute shot, and despite the use of a virtuosic moving camera, Haneke never draws attention to the camera itself. The way the characters crash together is exhilarating and temporarily allows the audience to be completed absorbed in the drama. However, the film’s fragmentary structure subsequently fights against that connection.
Much has been made of Code Unknown’s structure: the film is shot in a series of chronological fragments that lack any sort of connective tissue. Many of the fragments are shot in long takes, followed by an abrupt cut to black, then the next sequence. The effect is often disorienting and requires the viewer to find their footing at the beginning of each sequence with few cues. When new characters are introduced it is not immediately clear how they are connected to the story. Despite this distancing effect, Code Unknown invites the viewer to sympathize with the characters more than most of Haneke’s films. Although there is very little backstory for the film’s characters, they are all afforded more positive scenes that counter their most reprehensible behavior. Those aspects were missing from films like The White Ribbon (2009) and Caché (2005), where the characters were almost always cold and distant; there’s not a single light-hearted moment in either of those films. Even in Funny Games (1997/2007), where the characters are victims of unspeakable acts of violence, the audience is unable to sympathize with them because their plight is so unfathomable. In contrast, the characters of Code Unknown have more common and relatable problems.
Code Unknown shares certain traits with other social issue films from the last decade: a mostly realist style, a group of characters from disparate backgrounds who are brought together by a traumatic event, and different languages and cultures that isolate them. However, Haneke’s film is separated from the early works of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Paul Haggis’s Crash (2005) by not requiring some contrivance to put his characters together in the same situation. Where Iñárritu and Haggis concoct ridiculous coincidences to connect characters, Haneke merely starts with a group of strangers and follows their separate lives in the aftermath of a conflict. It’s a less forced approach, and ultimately the more successful one. Interestingly, Code Unknown was released in the same year as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000), one of the only other films to successfully navigate the intertwined ensemble structure.
Much like Traffic, Code Unknown succeeds because it refuses to give pat solutions to the film’s conflict. Soderbergh depicted a drug war in which moralizing bureaucrats were clueless about the root causes of the conflict and the actual lives of those being destroyed by it, rather than creating a simplistic story of goodhearted DEA agents taking down an evil Mexican drug cartel. Haneke similarly confounds expectations and offers no simple remedies. After Maria has been humiliated, Amadou pursues Jean for an apology, rather than trying to do any concrete thing to help Maria. It’s an ultimately unsuccessful attempt, but it raises the question of whether Amadou’s relative privilege blinds him to Maria’s plight. Although he faces obvious discrimination at the hands of overly suspicious police officers, Amadou lives legally in France and has a home, a family, and no fear of starving on the streets, none of which Maria has (although she does have family back in Romania). His desire to secure an apology to Maria does her no good; dignity can’t fill an empty stomach. But dignity does have meaning to someone who is routinely discriminated against because of their race. Amadou just doesn’t realize that he’s trying to secure his own dignity, not Maria’s. His selfish motives end up doing more harm to Maria, as the police officers round her up for deportation solely because of Amadou’s involvement. Another filmmaker might have tried to turn Amadou into a more traditional savior figure, rather than the flawed person that he really is.
Later in the film, Anne is harassed by an Arab teenager on a subway train, until an older Arab man stands up for her and chastises the younger person for his shameful behavior. The harasser in a more straightforward film would have been white, and the Arab man who came to the rescue would have been a ham-fisted reminder that Arabs aren’t bad people. Haneke shows that it’s not that simple: some people exposed to decades of discrimination and limited options will be shooed toward criminality.
Code Unknown cued into a Western European fear of immigration when it was released in 2000. The film confronts xenophobia on multiple fronts; there is a distrust of new immigrants from Eastern Europe like Maria, but ethnic minorities like Amadou have also never been completely accepted into French society. Western Europe’s xenophobia only increased after September 11, 2001, and those fears have been renewed in the wake of an influx of refugees fleeing Middle Eastern countries and a recent series of high profile terrorist attacks. The increasing popularity of Marine Le Pen’s National Front indicates a growing intolerance for immigrants among a significant portion of French citizens. If anything, the lack of respect that the immigrants in Code Unknown are shown seems quite tame compared to what would be expected today. Rather than diminishing over time, Code Unknown’s importance has only grown.