Cyril Schäublin’s Unrest may be the most orderly movie about anarchists ever made. That is part of the point. Uncannily serene as well as romantic, absurdist, and politically astute, Unrest riffs on Pyotr Kropotkin’s 1870s visit to the Jura Mountains, then the center of the Swiss timepiece industry. (The title refers to a particular watch mechanism as well as a political situation.) Not yet the amiable Santa Claus apostle of mutual aid, the thirtysomething Kropotkin (played by the nonactor Alexei Evstratov) arrives in the Jura as a cartographer and leaves a convert. Schäublin prefaces the movie with a quote: “After staying a few weeks with the watchmakers, my views upon socialism were settled: I was an anarchist.”
Explorer Kropotkin has stumbled upon his Shangri-la. Saint-Imier, the remote town he’s come to map, is not only the locus of watchmaking in Switzerland but, as the site of the first congress of the Anarchist International, a crucible of modern times. Nascent globalization has disrupted old modes of production and consumption and enabled new modes of political organization. Manufacturers worry about losing international markets, while workers raise money for foreign comrades. New communication technologies have also revolutionized daily life. The photograph, only a few decades old, is the source of celebrity; the telegraph, invented slightly later, is the information highway. Society is hyper-regulated but not exactly rational. Saint-Imier has four time zones: train, church, factory, and telegraph office. Time is money, and timing is everything. The telegraph office has a sign warning patrons: “Keep it short. Your minutes are as precious as ours.” Upon arriving in Saint-Imier, Kropotkin is thrown into a new governing regime, under which the police are amiably ubiquitous and everyone is monitored.
Having asked for directions to the factory, the stranger is briskly escorted to his destination by a young worker named Josephine (Clara Gostynski), who in the interest of efficiency has been ordered to adopt a new route there. She has a mission, but what is his? The factory is being photographed for an advertising prospectus and has been declared off-limits to outsiders—or so Kropotkin is informed. Thus introduced, the state’s soft social control and capital’s emphasis on temporal monetization become something of a running gag. Late in the movie, Kropotkin and Josephine reprise this walk. Indeed, they are hired to time their stroll, although they are blocked once more by the police: The watch factory is still being photographed, and “no one can enter the frame.”
What is Schäublin’s perspective here? He grew up in Switzerland (descended from a family of watchmakers) and attended film school in Beijing at the height of the Chinese economic miracle. His first feature, Those Who Are Fine (2017), as yet to be released in the United States, was a highly original crime film, so casually alienated that half its images might have been taken by security cams. The feel is relentless and contemporary: Transactions are regularly accompanied by security codes, and the master criminal is a young freelance fraudster operating out of a call center. People sanitize even in antiseptic environments. Young cops chat about their health and retirement plans. Culture is a source of calm. A Handel concerto provides the background Muzak for a tasteful temple to money laundering (i.e., a bank) where the white walls are embellished with color-field paintings.
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The ordinary, orderly world of Those Who Are Fine is made strange by the lengthy shots and odd camera placements. (In a recent interview, Schäublin expressed admiration for the humor implicit in The Salaried Masses, culture critic Siegfried Kracauer’s 1930 ethnographic study of Weimar Germany’s white-collar workers and “the exoticism of commonplace existence.”) So too is the commonplace at the center of Unrest, which is disconcertingly contemplative with its off-kilter framing, persistent middle shots, and fragmenting close-ups. The nominal protagonists are often placed at the margin of the composition. A large tree may dominate the foreground; groups of people cluster at the bottom of the frame.
The workers, mainly women, are timed as they set the “unrest,” the tiny spiral wheel that balances the clock mechanism, their extraordinary feats of hand-eye coordination celebrated in real-time close-ups. The assembly line has not yet been invented; each worker has her specialty in the creation of a clock. Schäublin used actual watchmakers in the film, although Josephine is played by an architect.
The bosses are concerned by falling foreign sales and obsessed with productivity; when one worker is arrested (politely) for not paying her taxes, she is allowed to take her tools to jail so as to keep working. Meanwhile, the workers discuss staging a slowdown, swapping photographs of infamous radicals as though they were Pokémon cards. As the town is continuously under photographic surveillance, the anarchists use photography to create their own far-flung community. Voices may be hushed, but conspiracies are open. The telegraph office, where police routinely regulate the clock, is something of a public square, although eyebrows are raised when the naive Kropotkin sends a politically indiscreet telegram to his comrades in Chicago.
Amid the usual competitive pay announcements (wages are predicated on piecework), the factory dismisses four anarchists; elsewhere in the building, a group of war-resisting workers refuse to make watches for the military. Conflicts roil the placid environment, yet like one of the town’s timepieces, the battle between labor and capital has a curious equilibrium. Bosses and bossed compete with rival raffles and choral performances. One side is chauvinist; the other proclaims that the nation is a phantom, that “the real country is us.” Rather than a patriotic pageant, the anarchists organize a modest paean to the Paris Commune.
Schäublin’s Saint-Imier is both a capitalist and anarchist cloud-cuckoo-land. The tranquility is accentuated by the soft murmur of voices, the sound of wind in the trees, and the natural-light cinematography. Unrest’s pastoral quality recalls mid-period Straub-Huillet films like From the Clouds to the Resistance and Too Early/Too Late, but Schäublin is both more obvious—as when a cluster of Russian exiles discuss the implications of the newly invented alarm clock—and more subtle. The decorous juxtaposition of faux-benign capitalist totality and not quite passionate working-class indignation is comic without being laughable.
Kropotkin’s Saint-Imier was a bit grimmer. Although the Swiss had dominated the international timepiece market, other nations were catching up. “Machine-made American watches were reducing the market for cheap Swiss watches, which had sold in huge numbers previously, especially in America,” he later wrote. “The best workers barely found work a few days a week…. Destitution hung over the city, indeed over the region as a whole.”
Kropotkin was not the only radical philosopher impressed by the Swiss watchmakers. Although they never met, his fellow anarchist, the peripatetic Mikhail Bakunin, was in residence in the Jura during the time of Kropotkin’s first visit, and some years earlier, Bakunin’s rival Karl Marx held up the Swiss établisseur system, founded on highly specialized individual workers, as the original example of “genuine manufacture.” His description of the process is likely the longest sentence in Capital’s first volume.
Perhaps Schäublin had this in mind when, in Unrest’s longest speech, Josephine gives Kropotkin a delightfully precise and not unflirtatious explanation of her job. “Do you understand?” she asks. The description, as we have been made aware, takes far longer than it would for her to install an unrest wheel. Delivered in an Edenic leafy glade, it is the final deadpan riff in a movie filled with them.