To begin with, while the cinema used to make one situation produce another situation, and another, and another, again and again, and each scene was thought out and immediately related to the next (the natural result of a mistrust of reality), today, when we have thought out a scene, we feel the need to "remain" in it, because the single scene itself can contain so many echoes and reverberations, can even contain all the situations we may need. Today, in fact, we can quietly say: give us whatever "fact" you like, and we will disembowel it, make it something worth watching.—Cesare Zavattini1
Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, FR, 2000) begins with a prologue: a young girl cowers against a blank white wall then shrinks to the floor, seemingly, in fear. She then stands back up, and the film cuts to a series of shots of children who obviously have been watching what we now realize was a performance staged for them. The third child to whom the film cuts asks, in sign language, "Alone?" The film cuts back to the first girl, the performer, who must shake her head "No," just as she does to each of the following five children who venture similar interpretations. An image is presented in a single long take. It is presented to an audience that does not understand it, that must try, or feels it must try, to interpret it. The audience must fail in this activity, or at least its activity is suspended by the film's ending of the scene through the simple fact of a cut which is all we get of closure. With Haneke, instead of closure or denouement, it seems, we get termination.
What follows from this point in the film (with very few—though significant—exceptions) is a series of long takes that record the events in the lives of several characters whose movements occasionally overlap, intersect or simply, [End Page 17] perhaps more accurately, abut one another. We spectators will occupy the position of the children in the prologue who attempt to interpret the dumb show, as we attempt to interpret the melodrama of Code Unknown. Vision and sound will be crappy guides to knowledge of the film, of the world that we look at through it, but they (that is, sound and image—this being film, of course) will be all we have to go on.
Sometime, the point will seem to be, as in the film's prologue, that we don't know what we see. Or that the name we might have attached (had we been asked . . . but were we not?) to what we were seeing (the content of a given shot) would have been the wrong name. Which is to say that the film, despite the near relentlessness of its long-take unfolding, sends us as much backwards as it does forwards, calls us to recall the earlier moments in the film when we thought we knew what we were seeing and why, and why those things then seemed important or insignificant: as in a mystery film when we realize too late that we have misread clues. Except that here there is no mystery, there are only facts. These facts become mysteries retrospectively only because we realize that we did not know that we did not know, or that we did not know that our not knowing was at all an issue.
The principle way in which these mysteries of facts present themselves as such is the matter-of-fact unspooling of the film's long-take cinematography in which scene and shot are identical. Often these takes are fluid, at times almost balletic; other times they are static, rigid, immobile. In every case we cannot miss the fact of them, miss their advertisement of themselves as virtuosically such. In many ways, this is not a subtle film.
But the film's investment in the long take: what is it? And what guesses are we to hazard, like the deaf children whose doubles we are, as to its meaning? Through the long take the film most obviously immerses itself and us in the...