This article appeared in the October 12, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here. Read more of our coverage of the 60th New York Film Festival here.

Unrest (Cyril Schäublin, 2022)

At the beginning of Cyril Schäublin’s sophomore feature, Unrest, a woman suggests that a territory, instead of defining its inhabitants, is simply “a place where people live together at any moment.” The film takes its cue from this seemingly throwaway comment, celebrating human togetherness over geographic coincidence. Unrest takes place in the 1870s in the small Swiss village of Saint-Imier, where the primary industry is watchmaking. The locals speak Swiss German, Russian, French, and a local dialect, and—with over a decade to go before the establishment of standard time—they track the hours with nearly as many clocks, yielding factory time, municipal time, telegraph time, and railway time.

The protagonist is the famed Russian geographer and anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin (played by Alexei Evstratov), who arrives in the town to conduct a mapping survey. He soon finds himself embroiled in a simmering conflict between a local sect of anarchist workers and a cabal of nationalistic bosses who attempt to influence upcoming elections with propagandistic stage shows. These political battles play out on the floor of the watch factory, as the workers (portrayed by a crew of nonprofessional actors and real-life Saint-Imierian watchmakers) form a collective of historical significance—The Anarchist International of Saint-Imier, the first organization to partition anarchists and Marxists—whose decentralized, radically egalitarian approach offered many, including Kropotkin, an alternative to orthodox Marxism.

With Unrest, Schäublin has fashioned a special kind of chronotopea visualization of the workings of time and space—that both offers a window into history and gestures toward the reimaginative possibilities of cinema. D.P. Silvan Hillmann’s idiosyncratic, methodical compositions, which often zero in on the mesmerizing micromechanics of watchmaking, move away from the camera’s habitual fascination with the human face and toward a genuine sense of marvel at human hands and their capabilities. The film radiates a deep humanism, which also fueled the conversation I had with Schäublin last August over Zoom about the film. We talked about history, photography, time, love, and revolutions, and paid tribute to the unrest wheel, the regulating mechanism at the heart of every watch, which gives the film its name.

Your first feature, Those Who Are Fine (2017), takes place in the present, but this new one is set in the 1800s. Would you describe yourself as a nostalgic filmmaker?

What I think is interesting about the past—and the future, also—is how both are a construction in your mind. In a way, the images of the past that one makes from the standpoint of the present mirror where we are right now. In that sense, no, I don’t feel like I’m a nostalgic person. I also don’t think the past was really better or worse than the present.

Your work exhibits an interest in networks—people and spaces and how they interact and relate to one another. In Those Who Are Fine, it’s the internet, whereas in Unrest, the socio-spatial relationships are historical. 

In the new film, you have a group attempting to build an anarchist identity with strike funds or by singing a song, while the local government attempts to establish a nationalist movement through elections. I’d call it “situation-building”—when people are together, they form something. It may happen all the time, but to me, it’s still mysterious.

This reminded me of the definition of “territory” uttered by a character at the beginning of the film

It makes me think about why I find anarchism attractive: it’s an open field for projections, and an ongoing riddle. Juxtaposing situations and territories as an idea is really interesting in the sense that the situations that we inhabit together might be much bigger [than territories as] registered officially or governmentally.

For the most part, making a film entails world-building. You meet so many people, you have so many encounters, that you have to stay open, even if that means the [resulting] film will change. The script for Unrest was a mix of dialogue I wrote, on the one hand, and openness, on the other. During the shoot, this idea of building a world together became even more concrete, because it is a period film. When all of the nonprofessional actors show up in the morning and we have [to confront these] situations, everyone’s trying it out together. There’s a poet from Bern, there is an artist from Zurich, there is a truck driver from Saint-Imier, watchmakers from the countryside, a math teacher—but everyone is in it, together.

How did you work with your nonprofessional actors to recreate everyday interactions with subtlety?

I don’t like the idea of casting. For this film, I met a lot of people just for coffee—watchmakers, and other locals. That, of course, took a lot of time, because I [had to] explain the idea of the film to them, how we were going to shoot. And then if I felt we understood each other, we’d do some [screen] tests. But it was still a risk because some of them had never been in a film. It’s a lot, and I expected them to be nervous. So it was my job to help them out, and I told them to act as if the past would somehow still be in us. And to just channel it.

One of the factory supervisors in the film really worked as a supervisor in the watch factory. Of course he was doing it in the 1970s, not the 1870s. But how do we deal with the past and the bodies of the present? One of my biggest wishes was that, even though it is a historical film, people would act like they do every day. I think there are quite a few historical films where everything seems so meaningful. Everything is so heavy. I figured that in the 19th century, too, there were routine, colloquial ways of talking. As a result, you see big stuff happening with zero fanfare here.

Can you say something more about the film’s ending? It’s very distinctive after the static uniformity of everything that’s come before. Suddenly, there is a pan, with no people in the frame and everything in soft focus.

I told Silvan that when he starts [to pan], it should not be smooth, but rather manmade, where you feel a hand moving the camera. The idea was really to show that we have the freedom to decide what to look at and where to look. The rationale is in a book by Pyotr Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution [1902], which is a reaction to Darwin. The question is: what do we focus on? Do we focus on competition systems, like Darwin did, or do we focus on those of mutual aid, the help systems? So he wrote a book only about mutual-aid systems. This is interesting to me because it’s a question of what happens when we are free to decide what to direct our mind toward—what to look at, what to give attention to.

Unrest is also very much about filmmaking in the way it thematizes photography and explores the mechanisms behind storytelling. I was wondering if you thought about the relationship between the figure of the watchmaker and that of the filmmaker?

Watchmaking is in my family, though I don’t do it. Something that was interesting to me was speaking to my great-uncle, who was a watchmaker. I asked him this really naive question: What is time? He said that all the watch does is create a series of events, separated by a tick and a tock. Then, of course, I started thinking that this is weirdly connected to storytelling itself. The watch is a machine, and so is the camera. It’s a creative machine. It’s made up, but it also makes things up.

Who or what is the protagonist of Unrest, according to you?

My wish is that it would be the unrest wheel itself. I really liked this idea that in the early Soviet Union, there was a poetic demand to put an object into the center of the story, the novel, or the film: I found [Sergei] Tretyakov’s [1929 essay] “The Biography of the Object” fascinating. It says something about the relationship that we have with machines or to objects. When I was talking to historians, I found that it’s very hard to reconstruct female biographies from the 19th century. What do I know of the women in my family who worked in watch factories? I don’t really know anything. But what we do know is what their work was like, what they produced—this unrest wheel—which we can reconstruct because people today still work with the machines from the 19th century. We can reconstruct the work of their hands, [which was] actually a big part of their lives.

Savina Petkova is a Bulgarian film critic living in London, where she’s completing her PhD on contemporary European cinema.