There’s something deliciously ironic in the notion that the “bomb throwing anarchist” of legend — 19th century leftists who dreamed of the end of states, with all democracy “local” and every workplace run by voting workers — people fanatical enough to assasinate leaders all over the industrialized world and who would literally throw bombs, were inspired by that hotbed of anarchist thought, Switzerland, and the folks who made the watches that inspired the selling point, “Swiss time.”
Wait,. Anarchism Central was Bern and the Jura Mountains valley where assorted Swiss watchmaking concerns obsessed over time, effeciency, profits and market share? And the front line troops in that “revolution” were the Swiss women of that workforce, meticulous builders of precision timekeepers who kept “The Commune” in their hearts as they supported anarchists from Europe, the Americas and Asia with their labor and their salaries?
“Unrest” (“Unruh”) is the punny title of a Swiss period piece about that late 19th century epoch, where Swiss women, or Russian upperclasswomen, would discuss “Marx and Engel” and how the anarchists weren’t satisfied with those two, but alligned themselves with the “pure” democracy of the Paris Commune.
Writer-director Cyril Schäublin (“Those Who are Fine”) leans heavily on the simple irony of it all for a seriously deadpan and dull pretty-much-by-design dive into what seems, on its surface, like a fascinating corner of history to explore.
Because really, what do we think of when we think of Switzerland? Amoral, international tax-haven banking, chocolate and watches.
“Unrest” plays like a film inspired by that self-written Orson Welles speech as the amoral American Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s “The Third Man.”
“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed. But they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
A Russian prologue has a gaggle of politically-aware upper class ladies of the 1880s who await their turn being framed by a Saint Petersburg photographer and bemoan the fate of “Poor little Pytor Kropotkin,” who’s taken up anarchism and gone to “the capital of international anarchism” to ply his trade.
Pytor ( Alexei Evstratov) is in Switzerland to ply his trade as a geographer/cartographer, redrawing the maps in a more “workers/peoples” centric manner. But the movie isn’t really about him. He’s an observer, an epistolary linchpin of The Internationale, reporting on what the women do there, and communicating with his fellows all over the world via telegraph.
It’s the women of an unnamed watch-making concern, bent over worktables, relentlessly-timed, quizzed and coached towards “higher productivity” so that the Swiss can maintain their edge over “New York, Hong Kong” and other locales producing the pocket watches that the world runs on, who drive, finance and inspire this movement.
It’s already a “global” marketplace, and Factor Director Roulet (Valentin Merz) knows it, even if he never uses the word “globalism.”
The women are quiet, seemingly compliant. But they are quietly organizing, with Josephine Gräbli (Clara Gostynski) as both the factory’s model employee and the anarchist’s darling, an activist at the heart of the movement.
Her specialty? She sets the “unrest” wheel (A Swiss-specific term?) in place, so that the watchspring, escapement and other wheels work in perfect sync and keep Swiss time.
Can she and her sisters change the world with their thinking and the workers’ democracy that they’d love to spread the way Swiss watches seized the global marketplace? Can they manage it without Swiss women even having the vote? They didn’t until the early 1970s, thanks to the Swiss practice of compulsory male-only military service determining who could vote.
Everything about “Unrest” seems promising — the history lesson, the leftist agitation, the political and labor “unrest” that spread around the world.
But if you’re looking for a movie with drama, confrontations, moments of sweeping emotion and action and women making history ahead of their time, “Unrest” is not that film and writer-director Schäublin is emphatically not that guy.
This relatively short film — barely over 90 minutes — is often the cinematic equivalent of “clock-watching.” We stare at blank-faced characters and conversations often seen from afar, in unemotional, character-disconnecting long shots.
The one time a character raises a voice, it’s a publican, democratically “polling” his pub about a new “anarchist” made map (by you-know-who) and whether the working class Swiss there approve of it, or disapprove.
A key moment? Not really.
The most efficient workers in the watchworks are lauded in a meeting for “saving” the company with their improved efficiencies, but noting that they’re anarchists and that the country and the company can’t have this, their dismissal is also announced.
Curiously, the ladies go right back to work, as if Schäublin is making a point about the Swiss character and “business is business” lack of follow-through. Sack their best workers? Maybe not.
The film’s recreation of its time and place includes the birth of the practice of collecting photographic prints of heads of state, and anarchists, whom all the workers in Switzerland seem to know by name — August Reinsdorf, for instance.
“I LOVE criminals,” one female collector/enthusiast gushes (in French, with Russian also spoken in the film).
But as would-be assassin Reinsdorf was never photographed, she’ll have to settle for another “criminal.” Perhaps there are shots of Pyotr?
The script, the shot-blocking and the performances combine for a most dramatically flat exercise, apparently embraced by some at film festivals (groupthink) but which, in the cold hard light of day, is just disappointing.
“Unrest” could have been a lot of things that it’s not — “fascinating,” “illuminating,” “entertaining” and even “inspiring” among them. Instead, we’re treated to engrossing details that never add up to more than watching a second hand labor its way around a clock face.
Cast: Clara Gostynski, Alexei Evstratov, Li Tavor, Monika Stalder and Valentin Merz
Credits: Scripted and directed by Cyril Schäublin. A Kimstim Films release.
Running time: 1:31