A photographer is selling portraits for 20 centimes each to a group of women in a small Swiss town. They recognise two of the subjects, Pyotr and Josephine, and speculate whether there might be a love story brewing between them. When they ask the photographer how much he wants, he raises the price to a franc. He shrugs when they question him about the price increase; he knows intuitively that the portraits are worth more now. As a souvenir of technological advancement in the 1870s, they are exciting but limited. But attach a story and their value is compounded. Cinema progressed like this too, relying on novelty at first but then realising viewers craved narrative.
Cyril Schäublin’s Unrest is obsessed with ideas of value and worth, and how to measure them. It’s a curious film, in both senses of the word, a strange, captivating story and a constantly inquisitive one. It’s set in the picturesque Jura mountains of Switzerland and revolves around the workings of a watch factory. A new resident is Pyotr Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov), an anarchist from St Petersburg who is working as a cartographer. There are other anarchists too, some openly canvassing for money and new recruits, others—like the talented watchmaker Josephine (Clara Gostynski)— going about their work while supporting the cause.
Anarchist watchmakers—it seems like a contradiction in terms. Order and precision on one side, wilful chaos on the other. Yet the anarchists of this film aren’t bomb-throwers or even loud speakers. As the conversation in the first scene between Pyotr’s cousins back home shows, anarchism was just another political movement in a time of incredible ferment. “It’s like communism, but without a government,” one says. “They want to build a federation and to decentralise power,” another adds. A third woman poses the question: “Which concept will win, anarchism or nationalism?” The reply gives us an idea of the kind of film this will be: “What do you mean by winning?”
Pyotr Kropotkin was a real Russian anarchist and cartographer, who lived in exile in Switzerland for decades. Schäublin had earlier made a short documentary on Kropotkin and his life-changing stint in the Swiss mountains. He wrote of the watchmakers: “…the egalitarian relations which I found in the Jura Mountains, the independence of thought and expression which I saw developing among the workers, and their unlimited devotion to the cause appealed strongly to my feelings; and when I came away from the mountains, after a week’s stay with the watchmakers, my views on socialism were settled. I was an anarchist.”
The way Pyotr is set up in the early conversation, I expected the film to focus on his journey. Yet, he’s one of many characters in a film with no real centre. Schäublin composes the film as a series of vignettes, filmed with a static camera. Sometimes the figures are in closeup but more often the camera is at a remove, observing from a distance even though we hear the voices clearly on the soundtrack. This creates a Brechtian dissonance that’s apt for a film about questioning everything you see. Since the camera doesn’t move and we are at a distance, certain scenes unfold like a tableau. In an interview to RogerEbert.com, Schäublin said he did this “to give liberty (to the audience) of what to choose from this big tableau image, and what to do with it—but also to give the people who appear in the film, who are all non-professional actors, space to just do what they do and not be too (restrictive to them)”.
This might sound forbiddingly dense but Unrest has a dry deadpan humour running through it. Matches must be scarce because everyone’s lighting each other’s cigarettes and there are no less than three instances of someone saying, you can keep the box. The town runs on four different times—local, municipal, factory and church—which inevitably causes all sorts of complications. There’s something Keatonian about an outwardly calm place in the lap of nature that’s a vortex of various competing interests, from timings to language (German, French, Russian, English) to politics (both the anarchists and the authorities are selling raffle tickets). There’s also a precise beauty to the scenes in the factory, where we see workers assembling watches by hand, handling minute parts with the deftness of surgeons.
What the watchmakers do seems magical. It takes two-and-a-half minutes for Josephine to just explain her job to Pyotr. But it’s treated as labour in any factory system would. Time is literally money in this town. Workers are timed constantly, measured against previous times, and paid accordingly. One running gag has the factory owners timing themselves and others as they try out different routes across the premises. Factory time is set eight minutes ahead of the railway station’s; the owner explains that this way “my workers are eight minutes ahead of everybody else”. A sign at the telegraph office reads: “Keep it short. Your minutes are as precious as ours.”
Had this been a more conventional film, future revolutionary Pyotr would have been inciting the watchmakers to rise up. But Schäublin’s Pyotr is more of an observer and the workers are informed and individualistic before his arrival. It’s only right that the film reserves its closeups for skilled work and keeps other human activities in long shot. When asked if the raffle prize, a portrait with a representative of the anarchist movement, will be with him, Pyotr replies, “I am not a protagonist.” He tries to recruit Josephine for their staging of the Paris Commune. Smiling, she declines, also saying, “I am not a protagonist.”
Unrest is streaming on MUBI.