Unrueh – ‘unrest’ – the title of Swiss director Cyril Schäublin’s latest film, set in 1877 among anarchist watchmakers in Saint-Imier, a remote village in Switzerland’s Jura mountains, is the term for the wheel in the centre of a mechanical watch that ensures its continuous and even ticking. The unrest wheel inside a pocket watch is so tiny and the act of adjusting it so meticulous that, despite the film’s extended close-ups on the mechanism, its workings remain mysterious. Even the detailed explanations given by a young factory worker, Josephine Gräbli (Clara Gostynski), to her fellow anarchist, Pyotr Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov), who happens to be visiting the village, don’t entirely clarify it. When Josephine asks if he understands her, Kropotkin replies: ‘I think so’. If the functioning of the unrest wheel is largely impenetrable, Unrueh suggests, so are the forces revolutionizing production in Kropotkin’s time (as well as those that keep our own economic system running).

Schäublin’s film, which picked up a prize at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival, is, at a basic level, about the establishment and maintenance of clock time. Yet as the more familiar meaning of its title suggests, it is also about the disruptive effects of this technology on work and everyday life. That includes the lives of the watchmakers themselves, who are dissatisfied with the conditions in their factory, and inspired to resist them by the radical experiments unfolding elsewhere (the Paris Commune was established just six years earlier). The anarchist movement acquired a particular momentum in St Imier – which Kropotkin, in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899), ascribes to the fact that the small workshops where clocks were produced allowed for easy communication and organization among workers. The film portrays the interplay of these two counter-movements, technological advance and political resistance, at this crucial juncture in the industrial revolution. On one level, the watchmakers spend their days crafting devices that facilitate their own oppression: factory managers could measure the time required for each of the workers’ tasks and use these measurements to ramp up productivity. Yet their close-quartered working conditions also form the basis of their resistance.

The differences in tone and style between Unrueh and canonical cinematic representations of the industrial revolution are striking. In Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), the mechanized urban factory is the site of numerous slapstick incidents. In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), we witness a highly technologized capitalism that has grown spectacular and monstrous in its brutality. Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921), Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) also focus on the city as the centre of modernity. Unrueh, however, transports us to an entirely different setting. Although St Imier is a centre of production, exporting watches all over the world, here the industrial revolution – and with it, the regime of linear time – has triumphed by stealth, its soundtrack the subtle yet insistent ticking of the clock. But the effects of the change are no less profound and all-encompassing.

The watchmakers resist the increasing domination of the factory over their lives in every way they can: by working slowly, forming international alliances (we see them exchange photographs of famous anarchists), registering their discontent at the ballot box and refusing to participate in a patriotic re-enactment of a Swiss Confederation battle from the Burgundian Wars in the 1470s. Kropotkin, a trained cartographer, is working on an anarchist map that reverses the factory managers’ efforts to rationalize space by assigning each place in the area a letter and a number; he instead draws on the traditional names used by people in the valley in an attempt to recapture the meanings these places had for them. ‘Science must reflect the ideas of the people’, he explains. Later in the film, we learn that the municipality is working on a map of its own. Different territorial logics compete, as do four different definitions of time: municipal, local, factory and church – none of them synchronized. Unrueh depicts the anarchists’ struggle against capital’s growing power over space and time, but also, significantly, over narrative itself.  

The film reflects on the power of another emerging technology, photography. As Josephine is guiding Kropotkin across the factory grounds, they encounter a set: someone is shooting a photograph – which requires a flash produced by a blazing of magnesium and potassium chlorate, as well as twenty minutes of stillness – for an advert whose caption reads: ‘Nowadays one cannot imagine a man without a watch in his hand’. We never see the image; instead we see only Kropotkin, who has been literally pushed out of the frame by the photographer. Similarly, the film treats the fledgling love story between Kropotkin and Josephine as peripheral, hinting at it but never depicting it directly. The two first meet in the distance behind two buildings that take up most of the frame. Later, when asked whether they are willing to take part in a play telling the story of the Paris Commune, they respond with the same phrase: ‘Je ne suis pas le protagoniste.’ By eschewing the convention of relaying historical events through the emotional arc of a love story, Schäublin’s film coyly undermines its own commercial potential. History, in Unrueh, is not merely a backdrop against which a personal drama unfolds; and the film’s steady, flat rhythm – its distance from the pacing of a traditional romance – seems to stage its own resistance to the rationalization of time.

Instead of building towards dramatic peaks, much of the action happens in long tableau shots, often featuring large groups. The narrative unfurls in casual, almost muted conversations, primarily about conditions of work and how to thwart the factory managers’ designs, which always seem to take place either before or after the fact: the time just prior to the shift, during the cigarette break, the end of the workday, and so on. The film’s roving focus is mirrored by its decentred compositions: the protagonists are regularly placed in the margins of the frame, with their extremities sometimes partially cropped. Despite its frequent wide angles, Unrueh stubbornly denies us an overview. We see neither the horizon, nor the streets or paths that connect the village’s squares and buildings. Schäublin’s tableaus are often stage-like units of space that we are unable to connect to a logical whole.

The connections between the present and the late nineteenth century are similarly obscure. Clock time, which in the film appears as a new mechanism of control, now seems to us as normal and natural as the rising and setting of the sun. Yet our relationship to it has also changed profoundly in the post-industrial age. Under the guise of flexibility and autonomy, the customary distinctions between different temporal and spatial dimensions are dissolving: free time is engulfed by productive time, and surveillance, once externally imposed by the factory, is now internalized. It is Unrueh’s subtly elusive form, which seems to resist the demands of rationalized space and time – instead drawing our attention to the peripheral, the before and after, the events usually left off-stage – that makes Schäublin’s film feel at once timely and timeless.

Read on: Marcus Verhagen, ‘Making Time’, NLR 129.