A little over a week ago, I had the pleasure of attending the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival. Hidden in the antique stores, microbreweries, and cramped street parking of the city’s East Side, over 100 films were shown in six theaters. At the Oriental Theater, one of Milwaukee’s most famous independent theaters, the line to see the film stretched around the block of Farwell Avenue. That day, I attended the showing of Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown: The Incomplete Tale of Several Journeys, one of the films in the festival’s tribute series. Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Wesley Morris introduced this film as the one that best showcased Haneke’s strengths as filmmaker while putting him on the map with an international audience. Being a fan of Haneke, I wanted to examine the elements that would form classics such as The White Ribbon (2010), Funny Games (1997), and Amour (2012).
The beauty of Haneke revolves around his implication of audience observation. He both acknowledges the presence of the audience and understands their feelings of safety being removed from the events on screen. Knowing this, Haneke constantly shifts reality in order to place his audiences in a state of helplessness. The very first scene of the Code Unknown establishes this cinematic vulnerability. Audiences witness a young girl amongst a white wall as she slowly crouches into the corner. The awkward close-up and raw quality of the footage accentuates the realistic atmosphere. Haneke takes caution to never show what frightens the girl, leaving audiences to dwell on their own imagination. We become voyeurs to her horror; we want to take action against the terror, but we can only watch. The white walls then take on a dual meaning; on one hand, they provide a blank slate of imagined horrors, but they also signify how the chaos of the world around us can spin completely out of our control. As the audience descends into a state of self-made pandemonium, we hear the voice of a young child off screen. The camera cuts to a group of deaf children participating in a game of charades. With this cut, Haneke portrays two different realities: the reality of charades and the reality shaped by limited perceptions.
Haneke does the same thing later on with in the film while Anne (Juliette Binoche) is auditioning for a film role. The rusted storage unit she’s in automatically provokes claustrophobia in a way similar to the white walls. When she accepts the director’s offer to feed the lines to her, his coldly casual tone transforms the scene into one of a more sinister nature. Once again, two different realities emerge, one of the audition and one describing kidnapping and torture. Anne becomes increasingly distressed, but since audiences cannot see a face of reassurance, we believe her life is in danger. It seems a real possibility that this character has been killed until a later scene featuring her shatters that illusion. Haneke’s accusing perspective on the audience gaze, amplified by shifts of reality, challenge audiences to view these people as we would strangers on the street and realize the quick judgments we form based on our limited information.
This marks a prevalent theme in this film, from the sudden scene cuts and the strategic absence of a central narrative. Haneke employs these structural elements to amplify the withdrawal experienced by the characters, both toward each other and toward society. However, Haneke sympathizes with the struggle for connectivity and subtly layers parallels throughout his film. He achieves these parallels largely through character construction and the role of silence.
Anne offers a nice example of this first approach. She displays confidence and stubbornness that connects her and her estranged son Jean-Pierre (Alexandre Haimdi). After being harassed by teenage punks on a subway, fear replaces her confidence, causing her to crouch in her seat in the same manner as the young girl crouches in the beginning of the film. Silence also connects the characters. Dialogue, to some extent, unlocks these characters for the audience, but Haneke makes it more important to focus on what is not being said. Often, characters hold back their dialogue, never revealing more than needed. Characters also exhibit moments where they abide in silence –whether alone or sharing the silence with others. Even though they do not always communicate with each other, these characters express intimacy independent of dialogue or external event. Sometimes intimacy exists only in fleeting moments of connection, hidden in hints and suggestion.
Discussing the talents of Michael Haneke in regards to this film would easily take hours and several pages. Haneke gives literacy for abstract themes so to be understood for his audience. He challenges viewers to express emotion independent of standard movie cues. Finally, what Morris pointed out in his introduction to this film is how the film transcends the traditional narrative based in a single catalytic event to portray a slice of life. Even if the so-called ‘moment’ film is not what you usually watch, take a chance with Michael Haneke. Sometimes films need to be experience instead of simply viewed.