This review was contributed by Margaret O’Brien who is currently working on the history of the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead London:

I recently watched Unrest on MUBI and was impressed by the detailed depiction of labour in a watchmaking factory in the Swiss Jura Mountains. The accompanying notes by the director, Cyril Schӓublin, who also wrote and edited the film, tell us that, along with the writings of Kropotkin, key sources were the memories of his grandmother and great aunts who worked as watchmakers. The archive photos he posted on MUBI show images of the regimentation of workers, the role of women in the workplace and the craft precision of their labour. However, as I will discuss, social realism is only one element of this film. It is formally very playful and inventive with a distinctive visual style (cinematography  Sylvann Hillmann) often creating a distancing effect by placing figures in the lower part or corner of the frame, dominated by leaves and trees. 

Women’s work

Unrest is set in the 1870s in the municipality of St. Imer in the canton of Berne. Anarchism, an anti-state version of socialism, flourished in these communities, so much so that the Jura became the centre of the international movement. It was here also that Prince Kropotkin, Russian aristocrat, socialist rebel and prominent geographer, was converted to anarchism and became its most famous proponent.

Josephine and Kropotkin in the forest

The film’s narrative is structured through a series of vignettes. One of the narrative threads is the hint of a growing romance between Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov) who is mapping the valleys according to how local people experience them and Josephine (Clara Gostynski) the young anarchist watchmaker. In a moving sun-dappled scene, deep in the forest, she explains at length the intricacies of her craft as a fitter of the unrest, a tiny spiral wheel that balances the mechanism, which she describes as the ‘heart’ of the watch. 

The title Unrest combines the mechanical and social meanings of the word. The film is also concerned with change and modernity, especially the politics of work in a capitalist society. Its unhurried pace allows us to reflect on both the intricacies of the relationship of the worker with her tools and her relationship with the factory managers. The mainly female workforce is strictly supervised down to the last second.  

Communications are becoming globalised. The telegraph office is an important locale which, before standard time, has its own time which co-exists awkwardly with three others, the railway station, the municipality and the watch factory. The telegraph was used by owners/managers to communicate with international markets and by the workers to organise support for the world wide industrial struggles of fellow anarchist workers. 

The new science and art of photography, now possible in the open air and developed on paper, is another signifier of modernity. And the photographer, a key character throughout, criss-crosses the class divide to make sales, from photos for the factory catalogue or the director in his new role as regional councillor, to portraits of anarchists, including in the closing sequence those of Kropotkin and Josephine who are seemingly passing into local history as hero and heroine.

The anarchist counter cultural values of mutual aid, international solidarity and women’s equality are strongly represented. The patriotic re-enactment of the Battle of Morat (1476), for example, where the participants are paid, is contrasted to an open air anarchist gathering. No violence here, just sweet singing and sound and image work together to create meaning from the faces (like photographic stills) of individual workers as they listen. Differences in voting practices are shown. The factory director is standing for the Grand Council of Berne in the municipal elections and some workers are turned away for non-payment of taxes. 267 of those who voted spoiled their papers following exchanges of secret messages on matchboxes. But a simple show of hands was clearly part of everyday democracy, whether in showing financial support for striking railway workers in Baltimore or the spontaneous communal vote in the pub where the majority agree to the publican’s display of the Kropotkin’s new anarchist map.

Schӓublin is more interested in conveying such social dialectics than in developing the psychology of his protagonists. His cast of actors, mainly non-professional locals from all walks of life deliver their lines, often lists or texts, in a subdued style reminiscent of Bresson. 

The last image in the film, the watch in the forest

Unrest, Schӓublin’s second film after Those who are fine (Switzerland 2017) has attracted positive responses at international festivals and won the Encounters Award for Best Director at the Berlinale this year. I recommend this film which is innovative in style, beautiful to watch and which also reflects on an important historical and political moment of history which has relevance to our own times.