Berlinale 2022 review: Unrest (Cyril Schäublin)

“The film’s offbeat character may keep off some, but those willing to go with the flow of this alpine brook of a film will find much pleasure in it.”

Meticulously crafted and very ordered and precise, like the watchmaking it shows in great detail, Unrest is paradoxically both a film about anarchists and an anarchist film itself. You wouldn’t guess it from the almost eventless narrative that is far less combative than its political thematics would suggest, but a somewhat historic moment in the life of Pyotr Kropotkin is at the heart of this film. In the Jura Mountains that form the film’s locale this Russian geographer would convert to anarchism in 1872 while visiting to update maps of the region. In Swiss filmmaker Cyril Schäublin’s sophomore feature his very distinctive style works like, well, clockwork to create a peculiar look at human interaction and societal organization.

In the late 19th century Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov) visits the small town of St. Imier in Switzerland as a cartographer. He meets Josephine (Clara Gostynski), who works in the local watchmaking factory where she is responsible for fitting small spiral wheels – the so-called unrest wheel that balances the mechanism – into the clockwork of pocket watches. Despite the pretty surroundings and the utter politeness with which all layers of this miniature society treat each other, the small town is a hotbed of anarchists, much to the chagrin of factory owner Roulet (Valentin Merz). Well-organized, the labourers are allied to similar groups in other countries, even across the pond; they donate a portion of their wages to striking brethren in Baltimore, for instance. Kropotkin becomes enamoured both with Josephine and with the movement, though with little fanfare or incident, lest it disturb the calm of this idyllic place and film.

True to the subject matter it portrays, Unrest almost rebels against the idea that a film, or stories in general, have to have things like an arc, an inciting incident, a protagonist struggling against an antagonist, and all those things that we are used to in fiction. In a way it has all of these, but in true Swiss fashion these are drained of most of their dramatics so as to keep things civil, with one specific idea in mind: that the film is not so much a series of events but a series of human interactions, and how that collection of interactions makes St. Imier, a metaphor for society as a whole, function. Unrest may ostensibly pit anarchists against the capitalist bourgeoisie, but it is the interactions between them that function like the unrest wheel of the village, keeping everything in perfect balance.

Schäublin’s formalist style enhances the feeling that we are looking at a small, very precisely built mechanism, not unlike a watch. Many conversations are filmed from great distance in carefully composed images, the characters often at the edge of the frame, all small gears in a larger system. A constant subdued noise composed of nature sounds and murmured interactions is whirring in the background as if those gears are turning. At times one gets the impression of looking in on one of those towns in a miniature train setup, which almost invariably feature some mountain scenery. And when Schäublin does employ close-ups they are often to highlight the painstaking work of putting a watch together, mimicked in the way he created his film. Style and substance are in total congruence, a formalist dream. And given its alpine surroundings and period setting, rendered in beautiful hues by DP Silvan Hillmann, it all looks so pleasant.

What is most striking about Unrest though is that so much, yet so little happens. It packs a lot of ideas but is never about them. It spends much time on photography, cartography, telegraphy, without any impact on the proceedings. There are anarchist meetings, there is an election, there are deals made. But none of these on their own are of any real importance. It is only when taken altogether that they become a diorama-like view of this small town, not in the least because of how Schäublin films it. One would almost forget that it was here that Kropotkin, a historical key figure in the anarchist movement, would fully adopt the creed of anarchism. So something important does happen, yet almost unnoticeably, distracted as we are by the many peculiarities in the film, such as the town seeming to run on four different times: that of the factory, the telegraph, the railway, and the municipality. Everything is measured and measured again in this film: time, distance, head counts. Watchmaking, like society, is about precision and making a lot of small things work together. So is filmmaking. It should be no wonder then that Schäublin, a descendant from a family of watchmakers, would make a film as precise as Unrest. The film’s offbeat character may keep off some, but those willing to go with the flow of this alpine brook of a film will find much pleasure in it.