“Unrest” - The Times They Are A-Changin’

in 60th Vienna International Film Festival - Viennale

by Kira Taszman

At the very beginning of the film, well-off ladies holding parasols in a sun-drenched Russian town lament that a certain Pyotr has left their home country, succumbing to a love frenzy in remote Switzerland. They are referring to the Russian traveler and cartographer turned anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (1842 – 1921), an authentic figure, who, in his writings, has recounted his experiences in Switzerland in the 1870s. However, the women’s interpretation of Kropotkin’s journey, uttered thousands of kilometers away from the actual location of his actions, serves amorous clichés these privileged ladies who seem to step directly out of a Chekhov novella are all too willing to believe in. Reality is more multi-layered and more Swiss, in a laid-back way that is unfamiliar to the Russian aristocrats – even if there is some truth to their romantic assumptions.

“The independence of thought and expression, which I found in the Swiss Jura Mountains appealed far more strongly to my feelings; and after staying a few weeks with the watchmakers, my views on socialism were settled: I was an anarchist.” Those are Kropotkin’s actual words, and in Cyril Schäublin’s second feature Unrest (Unrueh), a slightly fictionalized version of Kropotkin serves as a guide for the spectator: as someone who discovers new landscapes, new people and new ways of thinking.

Kropotkin (Alexey Evstratov), a well-educated, French-speaking upper-class Russian comes to a Swiss town in the valley of Saint-Imier in north-western Switzerland to establish a new map of the region that is supposed to fill in some geographical gaps. With his plan being boycotted by the Swiss authorities, he ends up working in the local watch-making factory, observing the laborers, their work processes and the rules their employers impose on them. Time is of the essence—not only to the film as a whole but also to the different factions of protagonists in the film. There will always be someone measuring time with a stopwatch to monitor the assembling of a watch by mostly female employees. This is also the case, not least of all, for its mechanical heart, the so-called “Unrueh” (unrest) or balance wheel. Employers have an interest in fast work performed in lesser time. It means a higher number of fabricated watches (which at that time are already exported into all parts of the world as a Swiss trademark) and thus more profit. The workers, on the contrary, have no interest in that kind of acceleration. Some of them urge their colleagues to slow down.

In this stronghold of the anarchists, a lot of workers have joined their ranks. They profit from the modern attitude of the movement. Unlike the insurance provided by the factory’s operators, the anarchist insurance also welcomes unmarried female workers like the young Josephine Gräbli (Clara Gostynski). Furthermore the members of the progressive independent movement support strike action in Baltimore and other faraway places they will never visit themselves by donating a part of their own wages. Indeed, the anarchist movement is so popular that it invites profiteers. The local photographer, Monsieur Clément, has portraits of famous anarchists on display. He is always on the lookout for more revolutionaries he can photograph, for their life expectancy is lower, and dead anarchists’ pictures are highly profitable. It is the subtle humor that characterizes Schäublin’s film that produces scenes in which young women purchase pictures of these deceased heroes they worship like young girls today would fancy the singer of a boy band. The factory manager, on the other hand, also profits from the anarchists by reading their papers and adjusting his business to the new information.

While anarchists strongly oppose not only capitalists but also patriots who organize tombolas to finance the staging of a nationalistic play, their disagreements never materialize in actual fights. Despite all their ideological differences, everything stays much civilized, the political status quo and freedom of thought are respected by all the factions. This is also true for anarchists who are banned from being served in pubs or from elections, for (supposedly) refusing to pay their taxes. Conflicts are solved verbally, there are no bloody clashes, and even policemen do not bother chasing citizens who have just disobeyed their orders. This laid-back Swiss attitude can also be found in the town’s multi-lingual atmosphere. While its inhabitants seem to be mostly Swiss German speaking, French is the lingua franca that everyone, including officials, agrees to use in case of communication problems. Some Italian or Russian can also be heard, and that seems to be perfectly natural, too.

But let’s get back to the notion of time. Not only is time money, but it is also measured in very different ways in the town, according to who profits from it in particular locations and situations. There is a municipal time, a post office time, a church time and, obviously, a factory time that is ahead of the other local time zones by a few minutes. Workers are punished for coming to work late if they function on, let’s say, municipal time and their wages will be cut accordingly. There will always be some official in uniform setting or winding up a clock in various locations, emphasizing the symbolic meaning of time. According to the time they choose to set, their allegiance to one of the factions will become apparent. What goals and interests are the different clocks ticking for? They stand for the passage from one epoch to another when political upheaval, boosted by the emergence of new ideas threatens to overthrow the old order. The film takes place at a time when it is unclear who will win this battle for the right time zone, i.e. the triumphant ideology. While the patriots like to look back in time, both the capitalists and the anarchists look ahead and have discovered the advantages of a common global time to communicate on an international scale—with potential clients or potential comrades in arms.

But a beautifully manufactured watch can also fuel feelings of love, proving the romantically inclined Russian ladies right. Some find it exciting to be told the details of watchmaking, and thus, at the end of this remarkable film, there will be a watch dangling from a tree in the sunlight, while its owner is busy indulging in some private business with another person that is better left off-screen.

Kira Taszman
Edited by Savina Petkova