La ronde (1950) and Code Unknown (2000)

Dir. Max Ophuls. Starring Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Odette Joyeux

Dir. Michael Haneke. Starring Juliette Binoche, Luminita Gheorghiu, Thierry Nevec

In the early days of this blog’s reboot, one of the problems I found myself grappling with was the trouble that comes from adapting a play into a movie. The trouble is with the similarities of the two: words become flesh, a basically visual focus for both, in the popular narrative forms a frequent search for catharsis. It seemed to me that despite those commonalities, a play and a movie had different qualities which should differentiate the presentation thereof. This scavenging approach that movies taken is not limited to the carrion of plays, of course; one need only think of the voiceover, a novelistic choice that fails far more often than it succeeds, and which has scuttled many an otherwise compelling picture. Ad Astra is the latest movie to fall into this trap, taking away the power of Brad Pitt’s face and the will of the audience to read the picture on its own. The reverse of this coin is the continued adaptation of novels whose greatest accomplishment is interior narration and which are thus doomed to fail as movies; Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby went so far as to put the words on the screen for the reader from time to time, a choice which must rank as the strangest of his career, and which was still vastly unsatisfying compared to the pleasure of reading Fitzgerald’s words for their own sake. There’s something to be said for a medium to fulfill itself on the terms of the medium itself, rather than weakly grasping at the tropes and techniques of others.

When I started watching movies with some iota of seriousness, I was frustrated with movies that felt like plays, but with more sophisticated or “realistic” backdrops, and I remain frustrated with these movies which basically dodge their own nature in favor of simply being a play filmed for the screen. This remains my primary problem with Fences, which looks like Fences in the Park more than it looks like a movie. A movie must aspire to different things than a play. They should look different, feel different; I fall well short of saying that the medium should be the message, but certainly the medium should give us reason to hope for certain things from its progeny. If a musical proves its value by the talent of its performers, or a horror movie proves its value with how much dread it inspires, then a movie should prove its value by how cinematic it is. If one cannot think of a reason short of the power of close-ups to adapt a play to film, a power which is not insubstantial but which on its own seems hardly enough to justify the resources which go into making a picture, then leave the play in the theater and choose something else to put up on screen. It’s been almost a century since Eisenstein and Vertov and Dovzhenko, who actively worked to invent the grammar of a medium, a grammar which has been taken for granted by far too many of their successors. In adapting a novel or a short story (the type of story which is probably best adapted to the standard two-hour movie, and which of course is largely ignored nowadays), there’s something for a movie to add, a visual element that our imaginations were responsible for and which a movie can express in any number of ways. In adapting a play, so often there’s a ceiling on what can be made new. John Patrick Shanley adapted his own play, Doubt, into a movie, and basically puts it into context: outdoors with snow, children about the school, etc. But none of this changes the straightforward character of his direction, which does not invite us inside the space any more than Nicholas Hytner’s direction of The Crucible or Denzel Washington’s direction of Fences. In The Crucible, what passes for the expansion of the world of the play is weather and mud. What does mud improve in an allegory? If a play is to be made into a movie, or if a movie is to be made theatrical, then it must explore the space. It must either invite us into the space and show us how we can live in it as much as the characters do, akin to putting us onstage, or it must lean all the way into its theatricality, making the audience of the movie as much like the audience of a play as possible. The movie adaptation of a play that does the former exceptionally is La ronde; the movie that succeeds in the latter is Code Unknown. Despite being made fifty years apart by men I think of as entirely different directors, the success of these pictures as theatrical ones is in spatial knowledge: they know where the walls are.

La ronde is adapted from the play of the same name (or translation, anyway) by the Austrian Arthur Schnitzler, which, like Code Unknown, hinges on a high-concept plot. In La ronde, we spend several minutes with an omnipresent narrator, sometimes playacting a role within the lives of the characters, sometimes chanting a tune and cranking the carousel, occasionally playing editor or strutting around and ignoring the film equipment. This narrator (my beloved Anton Walbrook) is the one who shows us the circle of love, although in practice it is rather more like a knotted rope for a climber than a carousel or a romantic waltz. We feel each step as we pass through, and the narrator is kind enough to punctuate each section with the roles of the two people who will feature in the segment. Within ninety minutes we’ve passed through every social class in Vienna, clambering about a servant and a poet, petty bourgeois and a prostitute, an actress and a society lady, and so on. They go together; one person who loves another loves a third, and the knot is tied and made alike up the rope. Code Unknown is, somehow, even more imaginatively conceived. The beginning of the picture shows us an event which is quotidian, if upsetting for the people it affects. A kid running away from home (Alexandre Hamidi) tries to get into his brother’s apartment, finds no one home, and waits outside his brother’s girlfriend’s (Binoche) work until she emerges. I didn’t know the code, he tells her huffily. He’s in a mood, and sitting outside for an hour has put him into a worse temper than usual, amplifying the teen surliness into something which spills over onto others after sitting at a low boil inside. She gives him some bread from the bakery; after she leaves him with the code, he heads back along the same street, on the same vector as before but in the opposite direction, and he tosses the wax paper from breakfast into the lap of a homeless woman (Gheorghiu). A young man (Ona Lu Yenke) takes offense for this woman that Jean has disrespected; a scuffle breaks out; the cops come; statements are given; it is laid at the feet of the son of African immigrants, and the woman on the sidewalk is deported. Everything else follows from this one event, and the cutesiness of “for want of a horseshoe nail” is limited by the austerity of Haneke’s direction. For Ophuls to adapt this play without succumbing to the tropes of that medium, the walls must be broken down. For Haneke, the walls must be made even more solid than they are in the theater.

Ophuls gets criticized occasionally for putting a jet pack on his camera—I’m thinking in part of Stanley Kauffman on Lola Montés, though it’s hardly the only example—but his adventuresome approach to shooting this movie helps it to feel like we’re watching something cinematic rather than theatrical. Certainly the jet pack tracking shots are all over the place in this movie, entirely comfortable with following a character or two down a city street or through the surprisingly twisted warren of a fancy restaurant. Then again, they aren’t the only tools at his disposal. Look at how Daniel Gélin seems to be sliding off the earth in this shot during his shy but still slightly torrid courtship with Simone Simon’s chambermaid:

It’s echoed throughout this chapter of the film, as Alfred’s tutor comes to the house for the session he has planned with the lovelorn young man. Walbrook’s MC is wearing a very sweet cap and smoking a hookah, and often as not he is just as tilted as Alfred.

Or, take a scene from much later in the picture, where the Count (Gérard Philippe) has given Charlotte (Isa Miranda) his sword and she, teasingly, maybe a little mockingly, holds it up on the bed. We’re behind the comedienne, as the movie refers to her, almost as if we are lying on the bed with her. The count is excruciatingly tiny, so small that he looks more like a child in a costume than some bastion of Austrian society.

This is a position that no one in a theater, from the simple fact of seating, could be in. We are either too far below the stage, or too far above, or too far back. This is the sort of intimacy without the close-up that Ophuls finds for us over and over again, and which lets us in on a moviegoing experience first and foremost. He’ll place furniture in the foreground, where on stage this would be an absolute impossibility…

…rapidly shift us from perspective to perspective, where within seconds we might be well below a character and then suddenly jump up, as if we’re sitting on their shoulder…

…or he may just put Anton Walbrook in the same shot as movie stuff. At the beginning and the end of La ronde, we see equipment out, and Walbrook casually walks past it as if it isn’t there. There’s also a delightful little cut from this scene above, where Joyeux and Jean-Louis Barrault are starting to go at it on the floor, to Walbrook standing up, holding scissors and covered in film. He snips. “Censored!” he whispers, and the world laughs with him and remembers that on stage such a cut, let alone the performance of it, is entirely impossible. Through the action of the camera and the boldness of his setups, Ophuls can claim La ronde for the movies.

Haneke moves in just the opposite direction, although one of his favorite tools is the same. His tracking shots are, in their own way, even more impressive than Ophuls’. They take place over a longer distance, on a more crowded set, and with more moving pieces. That opening scene where the majority of this movie’s important characters are introduced is back and forth dolly work, all in one direction and then back in the other, reliant on timing and blocking and all of those other very theaterish, actory words. But most importantly, the track means that there’s a limit to how the camera can work in 3D space. It will move about in this movie with the will of a person, although generally speaking it does not like to, eschewing a vertical axis for a horizontal one. If the camera can remain basically still, that’s also acceptable, which is the starting point for most theater; even if you let the people move around a bit in front of the camera, it’s the act of plonking it down and leaving it there which is most reminiscent of how an audience sees a play. (His willingness to hold that shot out while people speak only exacerbates that feeling. Perhaps we don’t know how many takes there were, just as we do not know precisely how many hours were spent in rehearsal, but the result is still the same: all performance, no cut.) The reason why this theatricality feels right is because of the care Haneke takes to play by the rules he has set up. The play-become-movie so frequently cannot imagine itself without the play, knows all too well the reason it’s adapting. Haneke embraces the aspects of a play and then films this original screenplay with such rigor that he gives the lie to those other pictures. This is, he says, what it would look like if you were actually filming a play, and because no adaptation of a theaterpiece has ever looked quite like Code Unknown, the ground he’s claiming is claimed for the movies.

Although Amadou is frequently in some trouble with white authority figures great and small (he gets the brunt of the police reaction in the movie’s first scene, and even when he’s at a restaurant he gets grief from the headwaiter), Haneke gives us multiple opportunities to see how easily he fits into the world otherwise. He has thrown himself into a program for deaf children, apparently the only person in his family who seems genuinely concerned about his deaf sister, and twice Haneke shows him as just one of a crowd. The connection to the last scene of Caché is practically self-evident here, down to how coolly Haneke drops Yenke into a shot and then asks us to find him like he’s a postcolonial Waldo. The one below is the easy one. There’s a similar choice earlier in the picture where it’s easier to find Yenke in a mirror than anything else.

The shot that I found myself most in awe of between these two movies is one which begins Sepp Bierbichler opening up the back of the truck. There’s a motorcycle inside. It is the only time in the movie he seems at all happy; we see him push this gleaming bike out of back of the truck, away from a bale of hay, down near the barn, and we can imagine how pleased he is at the thought that his son might be pleased with it. He walks into the house. We wait. Jean pops out. He sees something he likes. Then we wait again. The bike zooms in from the right side of the screen, disappears behind the house, and in two seconds is no more than a cloud of dust heading back in the direction it originally came from. There are no cuts: it is all one, as smoothly done as two actors with a prop onstage. The hard line where the camera moves back and forth is a wall more inalienable than whatever projection juts out beyond a proscenium.

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