Friday, February 1, 2013


Code Unknown
Since the beginning of Haneke's career he’s hinted at issues like white privilege & the theory of white guilt. The families in all his early films (Seventh Continent, Benny's Video & Funny Games) were upper class white people who essentially suffer or pay for being wealthy, white & privileged. In Benny's Video, an upper class family tries to cover up the murder their son committed because they have the means & power to do so but by the end of the film they have to face the music. In Funny Games, another upper class white family is held hostage (and eventually murdered) with their own objects that essentially symbolize their upper class status: golf clubs, a boat, etc. Haneke’s early work seems to be a comment on his own upbringing & way of life. It’s as if he's ashamed of his own white privilege and he's working through his own self hatred & guilt through film.

Code Unknown (2000) was his first full-on exploration in to racial issues outside of just white people. What’s crazy is that if you were to rank his filmography, Code Unknown would probably be somewhere at the bottom yet it still belongs on anyone’s honorable mention on a best of the decade list. That's how great of a filmmaker Michael Haneke is. His personal "worst" is still better than most. In the film we see quite a few scenes of racism and racial tension like the introduction where a young African male is wrongly arrested after standing up for a homeless Muslim woman who was disrespected in public by a young white teen. Although it’s a very good scene (done in one continuous shot) it’s not really telling us anything new. Especially in the year 2000. Cops can be quite racist & bigoted. If anything I guess that scene was trying to tell us that America isn’t the only place where racial profiling & racist police exist but there were already plenty of European films (like La Haine) that explored that. But there's one profound scene in Code Unknown (which we'll get in to in a bit) that represents something many people (especially in America) are afraid to talk about or acknowledge because it brings about discomfort & embarrassment.

Unfortunately we still live in a society where minorities, people of color & women are still sometimes judged or pre-judged based on the actions of other minorities, people of color & women. Some of you may not wanna admit this, but it’s true. If that weren’t the case then people wouldn’t ask me the stupid shit they sometimes do or make the stupid assumptions about me they sometimes do - "You're black and like movies? You must love Tyler Perry then, right?" During my employment at a local video store in Connecticut I can’t tell you the number of times I've heard; "You've seen The Cookout, right?" or "How'd you like Barbershop?" as if I automatically saw those movies. Now, those aren’t the worst racial insults known to man but those kinda questions & assumptions are still very telling and it says a lot (and trust me, people have made way worse assumptions about me to my face over the years).
Subway confrontation in Code Unknown
Towards the end of Code Unknown we see Juliette Binoche harassed by an Algerian teen on the subway. Eventually an older Algerian man steps in and stands up to him. At first one might think the older man is simply standing up for Binoche but in reality he's pretty much telling the young teen (without actually saying it) that he's not only embarrassing himself but any other Algerian, Arab, Muslim, etc riding the train. And remember that Code Unknown was made pre-9/11 before ignorance & hostility towards brown skin people reached an all time high. What makes this confrontation heightened is that it’s a young male person of color harassing an attractive, innocent, lonely, white woman which is pretty much the ultimate no-no. This is that scenario many bigoted or racist people (probably riding that very train and observing the harassment) have locked in their minds and here comes someone to play right in to that and prove these ignorant people right. The older man knows the younger stronger teen could easily kick his ass - just look at the stance of the older man and the way he looks up at him - it’s as if his body language is saying "yeah you're bigger than me but I'm gonna put you in your place no matter what you can do to me." When you’re filled with pride (especially pride in your race or ethnicity) you don’t think too rationally sometimes. Imagine an elderly Black person riding the train having to hear other young black kids call each other nigger. I know this is something many people of color can relate too, especially while riding on the train.

The ethnicity and even gender of the two male actors in this scene are interchangeable. Living in NYC I’ve had plenty of moments where I make an unspoken connection through eye contact with another black person on the train after observing another black person act like a fool. Some of you may be quick to judge and call me an uncle tom or accuse me of being embarrassed of my race but it’s nothing like that all. It’s the opposite. I have nothing but black pride but unfortunately I'm aware of how we're judged and still grouped in as one cookie-cutter like-minded group of people. I truly wish things weren’t like that. The representation of ones entire race should never be placed on one person but being wrongfully judged by a mass of people (keyword: mass) really gets under my skin even though there's nothing I can do about it. Do you really think the older Algerian man would have stood up and done something if the teenager was white? No, of course not. The older man probably came from a generation of Algerians who took a lotta unjust shit from white europeans yet paved the way for younger Algerians, Africans, Muslims & people of color in France and here comes this young punk to essentially piss all over that.

This scene has a spiritual connection to a later Haneke film (Cache) as the same two Algerian actors in the scene from Code Unknown play father & son in Cache. Every time I watch this scene from Code Unknown I can’t help but think of the Apex students (made up of mostly Black & Latino males) outside my old job that harass women as they walked by, play dice & have pull-up competitions as if they were in a prison yard. Although it’s unfair and not all their fault, the actions of those Apex students somewhat affect others. I know this sounds insecure (and I guess it is) but there's truth behind my insecurity. In order to get in our old building you had to pass through what I liked to call the "Apex Gauntlet" where every other word is "Nigga" and most conversations were about lack of child support payments (that’s not meant to be funny either. It’s the truth). Do you really think my former white middle-aged co-workers who commute in from parts of Long Island & New Jersey where people of color (especially black people) are scarce don’t momentarily associate me, the very next person of color they see, with those Apex students? I once had a co-worker ask me; "when you aren’t in your work clothes do you sag your pants like those Apex guys?" Do you think when a female cries on the job most men don’t momentarily associate weakness with women?

There’s a scene in Clint Eastwood’s Bird where Charlie Parker asks Dizzy Gillespie why he’s always on time to gigs and why he never gets high like the other Jazz players and Gillespie angrily replies; “Because that’s what they expect us to do.” Like I already said, it’s unfair but this is the world we live in and there won’t be much change any time soon. That's what Code Unknown is ultimately about - the film offers no answer or resolution. Actually, the subway scene ends with the young Algerian teen quickly startling Binoche & the older Algerian man before running off. See what I mean? Although the older Algerian had a profound message and essentially just wanted to slap some sense into to the youngster, nothing registered. He’s gonna keep on being young & ignorant until he gets an even bigger reality check.
an argument ensues in Cache
Code Unknown laid the ground work for his 2005 feature; Cache - a film that incorporates elements of that white guilt & privilege from his earlier work combined with the racial tension found in certain scenes from Code Unknown. Cache, a film that was set for an English speaking remake at one point, isn’t a sequel to Code Unknown in any way but both films essentially exist in the same universe (as opposed to other Haneke films which are rooted in fantasy like Funny Games or Time Of The Wolf). In Cache a TV talk show host ("George") is sent cryptic anonymous messages and surveillance videos of his own house which he eventually comes to discover has so do with his past. The videos & messages he's sent act in the same invasive way as the two villains from Funny Games. George's family is upper class like most families in his films and the surveillance element of Cache can be traced back to Benny's Video. There's a scene where the police barge in to the home of an Algerian family in an overly aggressive way reminiscent of how the police treat the young African character at the beginning of Code Unknown. Cache is ultimately a comment on the relationship between the French & Algerians. In one symbolic dream sequence we see a young white French child watch in horror as a bigger menacing-looking Algerian boy cuts off the head of a chicken (for those that don’t know, the chicken or, cock, is the national animal of France). This scene obviously symbolizes the misguided fear that many French people had towards Algerians (and probably most people of color in general) moving in to France. In my opinion, Cache is one of the best films of the last 15-20 years and combines Hitchcock/Charbroil-like suspense with France's historical past in a very clever way.

Early on in the film before the audience is able to piece together what Cache is essentially about, Haneke throws in a scene that, in my opinion, represents the racial tension that still exists between some black people & white people. In the scene George and his wife (played by Juliette Binoche) walk out in to the street without looking and at the same time a young guy on a bicycle, going the wrong way, whizzes by almost knocking them over and an argument ensues. There's immediate aggression between George and the man on the bike (who happens to be black). Things are eventually defused by Binoche but George and the nameless bike rider go their separate ways with a sour taste in their mouths.

Haneke knew what he was doing. Is there any coincidence that the person George gets in to an argument with, in a film about racial tension and France's racist past, is a dark skinned African male? And it’s not like Algiers is the only African country to have issues with France over the years. The still of George arguing with the young African guy is the most commonly used image to represent Cache among writers, critics, bloggers and other promotional vehicles for the film (seriously, Google image "Cache movie" and see what comes up). It’s one isolated moment that doesn’t really tie in to the immediate plot yet it’s the first nod at the racial tension that’s to come later on in the film.
Now that Haneke has crossed over to a somewhat more mainstream cinema I trust some of you will look up his earlier work if you haven’t already. The birth of fascism (The White Ribbon) & long lasting love (Amour) aren’t the only topics he's tackled. Naturally because he’s an upper-class white Austrian & not Spike Lee his films aren't often associated with racism & racial tension like they should be outside of people who are familiar with his work. Anyone that isn't too familiar with Haneke's pre-White Ribbon work who likes Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Higher Learning or even The Glass Shield should check out Cache & Code Unknown. It’s been well documented that Haneke isn’t very pleased with American movie audiences and the low standards they sometimes accept. Now that he has a much wider audience I’m very excited/curious to see what he’s gonna cook up next. From Trayvon Martin to Newtown Connecticut & Aurora, Colorado he’s got a lot of material to work with.


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