Swiss director Cyril Schäublin's witty story of a 19th century factory worker brilliantly redefines notions of the past on screen
1877, Saint-Imier, Switzerland. A watchmaking town tucked away in the Jura mountains is about to become an anarchist landmark with global significance and coincidentally, Russian geographer and philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov) finds himself then and there. Kropotkin was a real figure, who dispensed with his socialist upbringing in favour of the anarchism he encountered amongst the locals.
It is the confession of his ideological conversion that sets the tone for Unrest, the sophomore feature by Swiss filmmaker Cyril Schäublin (winner of the Best “Encounters” Director at Berlinale), with a quote laid on the black screen. The film transports us back in time, to the early days of modernity, its hypnotic novelty nascent in objects (the photograph, the telegraph) and relations (employer-employee, town elections), to serve a generous, off-kilter look at the genesis of the capitalist world as we know it.
Rich with yellowy greens, the streets of Saint-Imier are a bustling microcosmos of their own, and Kropotkin needs a guide. Luckily, he bumps into Josephine (Clara Gostynski), a factory worker, who is responsible for producing the unrest piece (the part which makes a clock tick). Therefore, the film’s title becomes a double entendre with one concrete, object-based meaning, and one more abstract and socially engaged. Through Josephine, the Russian traveller becomes acquainted with the ideas of anarchism, their deviations from a straightforwardly Marxist paradigm, and the way their workers union can counteract the dehumanisation at play within the factory.
This is all well and good, but what is it that makes Unrest a film that’s not only watchable, but also delightful? That it’s a serious period film, which doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is made clear early on, with the help of the (non-professional) actors’ more stilted line delivery that is also rich and open to action and reaction, that the “period film” look demands an artificial form of authenticity. On the visual level, this conviction is backed up by the intriguing choice of shot composition – DoP Silvan Hillmann frames people from a distance, their faces cropped, or confined to a far corner, to signal this playful fabrication.
In this way, Unrest makes use of but also celebrates the fictitious structures which govern our lives today. The town has four different types of time measurement, the prices of portraits go up once a love story is suggested between two of the people photographed – these random facts and their interactions are not more absurd than the instance of standardised time or the market economy as a whole. Our approach to the past is always mediated by some sort of fiction, as the film shows us. But this doesn’t mean we’re any less of a product of that very past and that our place under the sun is not governed by similar artificial structures.
Unrest is a revelation in the way period films can look like, talk, act, and age – its witty presence will percolate long after the last sequence ends (and what a sequence that is!). Without the promise of a better past or better future, Cyril Schäublin made a film of the present out of a past that may to some feel prehistoric, but in the early days of technological and industrial advances, the coming times were already there, dormant: such knowledge brings some solace in desperate times, doesn’t it?
Unrest was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch