HOW SWISS IS IT? Cyril Schäublin, who joins the Zürcher brothers as one of the leading auteurs of the first major wave of Helvetian filmmaking since the heyday of Alain Tanner and Daniel Schmid half a century ago, appears determined in his first two features to demolish the myth of Swiss probity, especially in the echt Schweizer realms of finance and industry. Schäublin made his brilliant debut with the ironically titled Those Who Are Fine (2017), about a young worker at a Zurich call center hawking internet services to vulnerable seniors—the provider’s portentous name is Everywhere Switzerland—who in her spare time extends her vocation into a more profitable venture, posing on the phone as an imperiled relative (or a friend thereof) so that she can collect considerable sums from duped oldsters. The film equates the call center, abuzz with enforced conviviality—“Sell with emotion!” urges the team leader—with the pristine parks in which the imperturbable woman executes her scams as analogous arenas of predatory capitalism. (A running joke about endemic forgetfulness, especially among the police, provides a metaphor for national amnesia.)
The film’s prelude, in which three characters converse in Arabic, one of whom recounts the story of the young woman’s fraudulent scheme, serves as the template for the pre-credits sequence in Schäublin’s even greater sophomore film, Unrest (2022), set in the late nineteenth century. There, too, characters confer in a non-Swiss language and outline the essential aspects of the main narrative, in which they will play no part. Attired in white gowns and elaborate bonnets, twirling parasols as they swill champagne from ever replenished crystal flutes, a group of Muscovite women discuss their cousin “poor Pyotr”—that is, Pyotr Kropotkin—who has discovered anarchism (“like Communism but without a government”) while traveling in a Swiss valley. The opening sequences of both films feature similarly striking compositions, the figures arrayed at the bottom of the frame while the vast upper expanse of the image is devoted to radiant nature, a swirling, sun-spangled river in the first, a swaying canopy of trees in the latter. These odd configurations, which privilege setting over humanity, introduce one of contemporary cinema’s most distinctive visual styles.
“Are we in the image here?” one of the Russian women inquires of the photographers setting up their cumbersome equipment to capture a picture of the group. Throughout Unrest, Schäublin employs photography, then becoming widely available, as a means of both resistance and control. Photo portraits of celebrated anarchists, the more dangerous the better—“I love criminals,” cries one young admirer—sell like baseball cards, while industry exerts its dominion over local space by strictly supervising the production of images. When a bespectacled Kropotkin, the mild-mannered polymath and nascent anarchist in top hat and natty suit, arrives in the valley of Saint-Imier in the Jura Mountains, his mission as a cartographer is to produce a radical new map of the region that “reflects the perspective of the local population, contrary to the administration and other authorities,” and includes places that have remained unnamed on the official maps. Attempting to reach a site that has hitherto been left off the standard plan, Kropotkin finds his passage blocked by two affable but officious gendarmes, who warn him, “Please, don’t walk into the picture.” A promotional catalogue for the Centralines watch factory is being prepared, they inform him, and no one must impinge upon its images; to do so, they imply, would constitute revolt. They escort the bemused Kropotkin away from the company’s photographers and copywriters, one of whom proudly samples his latest pitch: “Nowadays, one cannot imagine a man without a watch in his hand.” (Consider that selling with emotion.) The two ultrapolite policemen in their little black helmets, one tall and lean, the other squat and portly, could be cartoon figures but are actually implements of control, responsible for maintaining time on the town’s many clocks, another means by which the state wields power over everyday existence, especially given the four different time zones—municipal, local, factory, and church—that demarcate the sectors of authority in Saint-Imier. The duo also supervise elections, in which women and those with unpaid taxes or mental problems are not allowed to vote. Most egregiously, the gendarmes serve as self-appointed company propagandists, advising Kropotkin that “we are in the middle of a sales crisis on an international, even global level. We have to fight against it. We mustn’t let our foreign competitors win.”8217;s visual style has no precedent and is unlikely to inspire imitators, so singular is its compositional oddity.#
Schäublin fastidiously researched Unrest, whose title refers to both the balance wheel in a watch and the worker dissent that roiled the timepiece industry in the late nineteenth century. He relied on academic histories of Saint-Imier anarchism, as well as on the memories of his grandmother and great-aunts, who were once employed in watch factories. The director was also inspired by Simone Weil’s La condition ouvrière (1951), the French philosopher’s personal account of a year spent working in a steel factory, drawing in particular on Weil’s idea of “cadence,” the rhythm of repetitive tasks that unites body and machine. However, as much as Unrest depicts the factory as oppressively surveilled, its hovering supervisors grimly timing employees, exhorting them to work faster to increase company profits, and instructing them to measure transport routes in aid of efficiency, Schäublin’s portrayal of the workplace all but contradicts Weil’s vision of the factory as a dehumanizing environment where workers leave their souls at the door to suffer humiliation, “retraction of thought,” and feelings of uselessness and enslavement. Rather, mutual concern and camaraderie prevail among the Swiss watchmakers, most of them women, and even those who resist their boss’s time-and-motion studies by slowing manufacture appear to take pride in their own precision. In this work of exultant humanism, Schäublin accords the workers, peering intently through loupes to assemble their intricate machines, several ennobling close-ups.
Though Schäublin has cited the silent films of Yasujiro Ozu and F. W. Murnau as cinematic influences, Pasolini comes more readily to mind in the Swiss director’s determination to employ a nonprofessional cast, including, in Unrest, actual watch-factory workers and “truck drivers, former criminals, architects, academics or carpenters,” and in the film’s beatifying galleries of their faces, reminiscent of the “sacred framing” in the Italian master’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964). One thinks as well of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s late choral films, in which political didacticism and neo-pantheist rapture miraculously coalesce; of Harun Farocki’s industrial films and his video installation Workers Leaving the Factory in 11 Decades, 2006; and, occasionally, of Bresson in the intense close-ups of such functional objects as a primitive time-card machine. But Schäublin’s visual style, devised with cinematographer Silvan Hillmann, has no precedent and is unlikely to inspire imitators, so singular is its compositional oddity. In many exterior shots, Schäublin subjugates his figures to their setting, placing them deep in the frame, as in the first image of Kropotkin, barely discernible in a mid-image aperture bordered by eaves, a rooftop, and a chimney. Schäublin often situates characters at the extreme edge of the frame, in the lower left or right, and bestows the vast remainder of the image on a wall, foliage, or a street. In crowd scenes, it can take more than a moment to discern who is speaking, the eye roaming the image in search of a source. Less a Brechtian device than a purely formal one, Schäublin’s anomalous approach to composition, employed by a less intelligent director, could quickly devolve into mannerism.
Though Unrest’s rhythms seem pleasantly relaxed, even meandering, the film is symmetrically structured around Kropotkin’s arrival and departure and verges on the schematic in its contrast of groups and communities. The anarchists’ lottery in aid of striking workers in Baltimore and Barcelona offers prizes of photograph vouchers and alarm clocks, while a lottery administered by an all-male crowd of gun-toting nationalists promises ten of the latest firearms donated by the corrupt, ever-smiling company director. Similar is the distinction between two opposing choirs, who provide the only music in the film: a patriotic anthem sung by armed men, hands on hearts, and a stirring anarchist plainsong performed by an all-woman group that begins, “Bastard of the industry of the rich, the worker has neither hearth nor home,” and goes on to imagine “a republic of humankind.” While the anarchists revere the memory of the Paris Commune and its emphasis on sexual equality, the militarist nationalists collect funds to restage the four-hundred-year-old Battle of Morat, in which Switzerland conquered the Burgundians.
The affecting finale of Unrest braids its thematic motifs of photography, temporality, and cartography, as Kropotkin and Josephine, a young unrest-fitter recently fired from the factory for belonging to the anarchist federation, traverse a forest together. (Though both have previously declared, “I am not a protagonist,” the two emerge from the large collective cast as the film’s focus.) They are stopped first by a representative of “pedestrian traffic management of the municipality” who is measuring the time certain routes take to complete—another of the film’s wry gibes at Swiss efficiency—and then by one of the gendarmes, who, as he already did when Kropotkin first arrived in Saint-Imier, forbids the two to go any farther: “Nobody can enter into the frame” of the company’s photographers, he warns. This time, the couple rebel and continue, leaving the policeman to blow his whistle in impotent outrage. Suddenly, Unrest reveals itself as the obliquest of love stories, as Kropotkin and Josephine journey into the forest and disappear into local legend. At film’s end, their photographic portraits are among the most prized of all the anarchists’, their worth quickly escalating from twenty centimes to one franc as a savvy vendor gauges their value. Even anarchists end up as objects of exchange in the cantonal marketplace. n
Unrest opens May 6 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.
James Quandt is a film critic and curator based in Toronto and the editor of monographs on Robert Bresson, Kon Ichikawa, Shohei Imamura, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.