I have decided to include the following review in this Michael Haneke retrospective despite having watched it a little over a year ago for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the film is difficult to track down in my neck of the woods and giving it a genuine rewatch would be rather difficult. Secondly, I would like this review to stand close to my writings on his other works because, regardless of my opinion, the film is a key part of his journey as one of the foremost auteurs of our time. And finally, I don’t particularly think my view on this would shift radically anyway. However, it must be acknowledged – and it is partly why I am writing this short paragraph – that I watched Code Unknown before I was able to see 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, to which it is undoubtedly related structurally and thematically. In hindsight, I would have maybe adjusted my opinion on this film to a small degree had I known these two films were so closely related; however, I still stand by my thoughts and an overarching opinion that Michael Haneke was occasionally forgetting to dismount his moral high horse and delivering his timely and poignant sermons in a most unapproachable manner.
Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (also known as Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales Of Several Journeys) reminded me a little of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut feature Amores Perros. The similarities are both thematic and structural. The film is composed of several narrative strands that are seemingly unrelated to one another yet bound by a key incident that brings them all together at some point and inflicts major changes in the characters’ lives. In addition, the moral ambiguity driving the story together with a very cynical look at profound human tragedies, racism, humiliation, and injustice adorn the entire film with an overwhelmingly bleak tone and depressing atmosphere.
Interestingly, these two main factors – the particular structural complexity of the narrative and an extremely sombre directorial approach – are not the only things connecting the two films. As a result of complete coincidence, both Code Unknown and Amores Perros happened to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival separated by mere five days. Therefore, it is hard to overlook this strange kind of kinship between them. However, one of these films is decidedly better than the other and I have to admit that my allegiance falls squarely with Iñárritu’s film. While I definitely appreciate Haneke’s effort in assembling this veritable maze of intertwined sub-narratives, I fail to see the big picture behind it. As the camera kept hopping between a humiliated homeless woman being deported to Romania, a black teenager who stood in her defence being mistreated by the police, a war photographer, an actress and a few others I realized that Haneke wasn’t perhaps interested in building towards a profound resolution the narrative was begging for. He was perfectly content sitting there with a cynical smirk on his face and torturing by hinting at impending doom but never really delivering any of it.
I suppose this may have been his thesis in the first place, but in such case, I’d find it not only highly disappointing, but maybe even slightly disrespectful towards the subject matter and the viewer. I completely understand the filmmaking strategy of deliberately pushing the viewers’ buttons, which is found in the aforementioned Amores Perros, Ruben Östlund’s Play, Force Majeure, or many Lars Von Trier’s films, but I have to admit that Haneke’s film differs from them profoundly: it is eventually revealed not to have a way to coalesce the myriad themes it’s toying with and, in consequence, it is not capable of evoking catharsis within the viewer, which I find to be the film’s major flaw.
Taken together, Haneke’s Code Unknown serves to reinforce my growing belief that the filmmaker is more of a cynical jester than an intellectually-driven teacher [this is probably where I would disagree with myself the most at this point in time, because I do believe Haneke is a teacher, but now I can see he is not always successful in connecting with his pupils in the most fruitful way]. Of course, there should be a place for such works within the landscape of cinema, but I tend to prefer when the film engages with me on some fundamental level. Sadly, Code Unknown is a film that I am not sure if I can take seriously in any way, because the filmmaker seems completely disinterested in tackling the complex questions he so gleefully tosses left and right.