THE STORY – New technologies are transforming a 19th-century watchmaking town in Switzerland. Josephine, a young factory worker, produces the unrest wheel, swinging in the heart of the mechanical watch. Exposed to new ways of organizing money, time and labor, she gets involved with the local movement of the anarchist watchmakers, where she meets Russian traveler Pyotr Kropotkin.
THE CAST – Clara Gostynski & Alexei Evstratov
THE TEAM – Cyril Schäublin (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 93 Minutes
In the specialized world of watchmaking, an unrest is an indispensable element — a tiny spiral wheel that, when carefully inserted, balances the mechanism so that it runs, as they say, like clockwork. Watching the delicate inner workings of a pocket watch is a miniature marvel, and so in its own way is Swiss director Cyril Schäublin’s delightful new curio, “Unrest.” Although this is only his second feature, with “Unrest,” Schäublin already displays a uniquely personal and surprising approach to moviemaking that I’ve never seen before.
“Unrest” is set in the small Swiss canton of Bern in the late 1800s, but it’s anything but a historical epic. Through Schäublin’s eyes, it is presented as a town that seems right out of a storybook, with its own rules and customs that have little connection to the outside world. The downtown area, for example, contains four different time zones — factory time, municipal time, telegraph time, and railway time — which constantly causes everyone to be late or early. Bern’s police force is seemingly just two bumbling cops whose main job is to climb ladders all day to reset the town’s clocks, and in Bern, when meeting someone, the most polite act of courtesy is to light their cigarette for them. No one knows why; it’s just the way it is.
Into this apparent serenity walks Russian cartographer Pyotr Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov), who has come to draw up new town maps designed to reflect Bern’s recent growth. Incidentally, Pyotr is also an anarchist and has come to Bern to join the growing anti-government movement (There’s something delicious in the idea of anarchists busily plotting amid the greenery of serene Switzerland that’s pretty irresistible).
The anarchist collective is always looking for new members to recruit. One promising source is the town’s watch factory, where intimidating male bosses oversee an assembly line of female workers whose job is to carefully place the unrest in each watch. Josephine (Clara Gostynski) is new to the line and is trying to improve her speed on the job. Since, as a single woman, she is not eligible for the company’s health insurance benefits, she finds herself drawn to the anarchists, whose collective offers better benefits. Given that narrative set-up, it seems logical that Pyotr and Josephine are bound to meet, and indeed they do. But it’s just in how they get there (and how Schäublin chooses to tell it) that is where “Unrest” follows its own storytelling path.
Rather than entirely relying on its screenplay to fully tell the story — the film’s plot is actually relatively minimal, and what dialogue there is relies as much on communicating measurements of time and distance as it does revealing character — Schäublin uses his visuals to make his narrative points. For example, if you’re asked to show a group of people having a conversation, a director would likely rely on a series of alternating mid- to close-up shots, a visual language to which we have become accustomed. For his part, Schäublin chooses to shoot the same conversation from what seems like half a block away, with clustered folks talking all at once. At first, one would presume that such a technique would distance the audience, but in practice, it actually draws us closer to listening more carefully to what’s being said. More importantly, with those visuals, Schäublin is prioritizing the importance of the group rather than that of the individual, a visual cue for the theme that the film returns to again and again.
Also unconventional is Schäublin’s choice to cast his film with non-professional actors, which helps to lend credibility to these small-town characters. (In real life, for example, Gostynski, who delivers a solid performance as Josephine, is a professional architect.) Schäublin can even draw from his own life, coming as he does from a family with a long line of watchmakers. It’s little wonder that his many close-up shots of the watch mechanisms feel so lovingly detailed.
To be sure, “Unrest” is not a fully accomplished film — its lack of a strong narrative sometimes makes the film feel a bit aimless. But the imaginative vision on display here makes it a potent calling card for Schäublin’s future filmmaking efforts. Based on his work here, it’s clear that he has a voice unlike any other new director on the scene, one that I suspect will be heard even more loudly as the years progress.