A Time for Change: The Radical Calm of "Unrest"

In a bucolic Alpine setting, Cyril Schäublin's new film finds a serene battleground emerging between socialism and industrial capitalism.
Corey Atad

Unrest (Cyril Schäublin, 2022).

The year is 1872, and in the Jura Mountains outside Geneva, home to the world’s most renowned watchmakers, political unrest is fomenting. As the First International attempts unite the left, the watchmaker artisans of the small, picturesque towns dotting Switzerland’s western mountain range form the center of support for the anarchist wing of the revolutionary congress. In Cyril Schäublin’s new film Unrest, this moment in time and space is simultaneously roiling and tranquil. Seemingly calm people walk calm streets and work in calm factories, but the pressures and mundane brutality of capitalist logic are at all times bearing down, while the workers spread egalitarian ideas and organize in solidarity with each other and the international left. It’s into this environment that the influential Russian theorist Pyotr Kropotkin arrives for a visit. “When I came away from the mountains, after a week’s stay with the watchmakers, my views upon socialism were settled,” he would later write in his memoirs. “I was an anarchist.”

That quote opens Unrest, and Kropotkin appears in the film as something like an audience surrogate. Ostensibly touring Jura to draw a new anarchist map of the region that will reflect the naming and values of local residents over statist geographical designations, Kropotkin acts mostly as a witness to goings on. He is talked about in the film’s opening scene, and appears throughout the film, but often fades into the wider tapestry of the film’s setting, its array of quiet, mannered characters, and its expanses of time. While in some sense Unrest is a film about Kropotkin, it is also about a place and the people in it who inspired his ideas about a post-revolutionary order. But unlike many films about radicalism, which often burst with brash revolutionary spirit, Unrest never reaches for a fever pitch.

In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Schäublin, who comes from a family of watchmakers, referenced Simone Weil saying in “Gravity and Grace” that “it is not religion but revolution which is the opium of the people.” It was an idea the director had in mind while approaching the material of Unrest. The film eschews any narrative or formal techniques suggesting revolution, and takes inspiration from Kropotkin’s theories to look past utopian dreams of the overthrow of established society, toward the establishment of a new society built on communal principles. A staunch believer in a stateless, anarchist communism, Kropotkin argued for the values of decentralized organization based in the natural good of mutual aid. Decentralized, too, is the entire fabric of Unrest. Without the standard machinery of plot, the film is instead propelled by competing ideologies vying for dominance in the town, and while characters work and interact and go through changes, no one person takes over the narrative. This approach extends to the characters’ surroundings, often shot with people at the corners or edges of frames, setting them always within a context, reminding us they are products of the accumulation around them.

Unrest (2022).

A film about watchmakers, horology features heavily in Unrest. Lengthy portions of the film are comprised of close-ups of hands carefully assembling the clockwork, balancing the “unrest,” the spiral wheel in the mechanism that keeps the ticking even and accurate. Often feeling like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, these sequences center the beauty of the craft and the dignity in labor. Zoomed out to the factory floor, the beauty becomes encumbered by capital and time. Every second of the workers’ day is accounted for by overseers in a continual project of process improvement, finding the shortest routes between buildings and through hallways, among other cost saving techniques to boost the owners’ fortunes. Pressured into productivity, the workers organize among themselves, holding votes in quiet moments at the factory on collective political stances and donations to international socialist causes. The burgeoning anarchism makes itself known outside the factory floors as well, with discussion of theory on the streets, a man selling photographs of notable anarchists from around the world to eager fans, an outdoor stage reenactment of the 1871 Paris Commune, and word of Italian anarchists on the run in the area.

All these threads are woven together in serenity. Shot in soft, warm hues, the film’s languid images and its leisurely conversations evoke Kropotkin’s vision of mutual aid as the evolutionary pathway to progress and well-being, in opposition to the standard Darwinian conception of natural selection through struggle. Here is a world, presented not without conflict, but without centering the process of struggle in the building of a better community. When a more elderly worker at the factory is arrested and taken to jail for failing to pay her taxes, a product of her low wages and money lost from a confusing system of local timekeeping, it all happens with the same dramatic intensity as everything else in the film: little-to-none. The personal support and solidarity offered by the other women working the factory floor is itself the action, suggesting that so long as the workers have each other’s backs, there is a better future to be found.

It’s a marked contrast with traditional notions of radical cinema aesthetics, or cinema about revolutionaries like Kropotkin, a man whose life experience, from the wilderness of Siberia, to prison escapes, to life in exile, to witnessing the reality of the U.S.S.R. and its authoritarian communist project, could make for an epic, energetic movie to rile up anti-establishment sentiments in the audience. Filmed on a low budget, with a cast almost entirely made up of non-professional actors, speaking without attempts at historical fidelity to the language, there is a quality of reenactment at play in Unrest, not unlike the reenactment in the film itself, which also recalls Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000), an epic staging of that moment in history as modern documentary. Schäublin no doubt took inspiration from Watkins’s film, as he has acknowledged in interviews, but in style, Unrest reaches in the opposite direction, favoring stillness and tableaux-like distance over jittery camera work and tight spaces with urban masses.

Unrest (2022).

As with Watkins’s document of the formation and running of the Paris Commune, it is radical action that sits at the center of many of the notable films on the subject of revolution, usually accompanied by an aesthetics of dynamism. Stretching all the way back to the work of Sergei Eisenstein and his contemporaries, techniques like the montage of Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927) animate the spirit of that decisive grasp for power by the worker, their dramatic fight against the shackles of capital made thunderous by cinematic form. The same spirit in the fight against colonialism is captured in the grand tension and constant action of The Battle of Algiers (1966). Godard’s bracing experiments with form and the language of cinema, challenging and often assaulting the audience into a radical mindset, often look like a template for much of the experimental leftist cinema, which, varied as the category can be, is filled with works that rile rather than relax. Through the decades, films like Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba (1964), Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983), Robin Campillo’s BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017), and many more have matched the fervor of their radical subjects with punchy style. The recent How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2022) took the form of a taut heist picture to harness the spirit of the climate movement and make radical action look cool.

Unrest, though, is at home in its air of relaxation. The spaces of the town’s streets, its woods, and its factory halls, are all depicted as calm spaces little different from the upper class bourgeois Russian setting of the film’s opening scene, in which Kropotkin’s cousins enjoy a fine afternoon discussing his anarchist ideas with amused curiosity while standing for photographs. In Kropotkin’s anarchist world, every person who works for the essential benefit of society is owed the same enjoyment of leisure and its accompanying pursuits of art, science, intellectual thought, and personal fulfillment. Even if the workers in the film haven’t achieved their communal dreams, its form offers them and the audience alike that respite.

Time organizes everything in Unrest. In a town governed by four different clocks, each competing with each other as the most accurate, under the supervision of constant timekeepers, the film’s slowed-down pacing itself feels like a radical rebuke. Understanding time as merely a construct is to understand time as a tool, wielded by the owners of capital to keep the workers in order and underfoot. If the watchmaker feels stress balancing the unrest as her overseer stands over her shoulder timing her action, Schäublin allows her the dignity cinematic time can offer. With steady editing and still shots, the stress evaporates into simple wonder at her craft: a wonder which would be a valued feature of an anarchist society in Kropotkin’s future.

More than simply arguing for a socialism of each according to his needs, Kropotkin dreamed of a society where, the needs of all having been met, the fertile soil for true well-being would be found. Life’s pleasures would no longer be the exclusive domain of the wealthy, with every person given the time and ability to pursue their interests in nature, science, art and all that nurtures the human spirit.

Unrest (2022).

“No doubt, nowadays, when hundreds and thousands of human beings are in need of bread, coal, clothing, and shelter, luxury is a crime; to satisfy it, the worker’s child must go without bread!” Kropotkin wrote in the seminal “The Conquest of Bread.” “But in a society in which all have the necessary food and shelter, the needs which we consider luxuries today will be the more keenly felt.”

The luxury of the fine watchmaking in Unrest would seem an extravagance outside the interest of a film about radical socialism. But as the workers at those very factories understood the relationship between capital and labor and sought to upend it, Kropotkin would have also seen the value of the product of their labor, not as mere luxury, but as expression of human will toward progress and beauty equally possible under the guiding principles of mutual aid. They are principles the film itself matches in form, even as the process of struggle is gently illuminated by the oppression of the state and the factory owners, and the workers organizing for liberation.

In one of the film’s final scenes, theory meets practice as Kropotkin is on a walk through the woods with the recently fired factory worker Josephine. With her, he shares his vocation as a geographer, describing some of his travels. With him, she shares the purpose of her job as a watchmaker, fitting the unrest. Elaborating on how the unrest produces balance, she breaks down the mechanics of the clockwork, explaining how all the tiny, complicated rods, wheels and gears fit together such that “the speed is defined by two opposing sides.” Asked if he understands what she just explained, Kropotkin, sussing out the metaphorical heart of the watch movement, says, “I think so.” The subdued exchange feels almost romantic. It is timekeeping escaping the grasp of the capitalists and state authority, placed in the hands of those who labor to create it, who endeavor to use time, as the film does, envisioning a just future for the flourishing of human community. 

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