For Workers in the New Movie Unrest, the Clock Is the Villain

Unrest gives viewers plenty that they won’t find in films elsewhere: a quietly gorgeous portrayal of the labor process, a lead role for the anarchist geographer Pyotr Kropotkin, and an exploration of how bosses wrestle with workers over control of their work.

A shot of watches from the film Unrest. (KimStim Films, 2022)

Before Pyotr Kropotkin became synonymous with the anarchist movement, the Russian aristocrat was a cartographer, working for the Russian Geographical Society. In 1872, influenced by the rising wave of revolutionary activity (in particular, the Paris Commune) he decided to put his studies aside and investigate the workers’ movement himself. He set out for a three-month trip to Europe.

The Switzerland leg of his journey was pivotal. A succession of small towns in the hills of the Jura Mountains were home to the first-ever International Anarchist Congress in 1872. In those mountainous valleys, Kropotkin spent time with revolutionary workers, members of the anarchist Jura Federation. They were largely employed in the watchmaking trade, and Kropotkin theorized that the organization of the delicate work created a high level of intellectual development among the workers. These anarchists were not mere followers of one leader or another: as he wrote in a reflection on this visit, “there was not a question upon which every member of the federation would not strive to form his own independent opinion.”

Portrait of Pyotr Kropotkin. (Nadar / Gallica Digital Library via Wikimedia Commons)

The experience solidified his political commitments: “The egalitarian relations which I found in the Jura Mountains, the independence of thought and expression which I saw developing in the workers, and their unlimited devotion to the cause appealed far more strongly to my feelings; and when I came away from the mountains, after a week’s stay with the watchmakers, my views upon socialism were settled. I was an anarchist.”

Swiss director Cyril Schäublin’s Unrest opens with a shortened version of that Kropotkin quote. The film, Schäublin’s second feature, is a dramatization of the anarchist’s time in the Swiss mountain town of Saint-Imier. Schäublin comes from a family of watchmakers like those portrayed in the film, and his use of a nonprofessional, largely local cast gives the period piece a surprisingly modern feel. The film’s title is a play on the word for the tiny spiral wheel that balances the mechanism at the heart of a watch: unrueh, the unrest.

Despite what some may expect of a film about the anarchist movement, Unrest is without dramatic action, much less violence. Director of photography Silvan Hillman frames characters at the very edge of shots, where they are dwarfed by the surrounding architecture or the area’s idyllic scenery, with forest and sky taking up the bulk of the frame. Revolutionary messages are exchanged wordlessly, on matchbooks passed between smokers. Members of an anarchist union cooperative deliberate while working before voting to send a portion of their wages to striking railroad workers in Baltimore.

Schäublin’s approach emphasizes the ordinariness of the movement’s participants: they could be anyone, anywhere; even a seemingly sleepy small town might be the heart of revolutionary ferment. Yet that isn’t to say that nothing happens in Unrest. The minimalism of the film is in stark contrast to the historical transformation the area is undergoing.

Most centrally, there is the matter of time. Saint-Imier is home to a watch factory, and factory director Roulez (Valentin Merz) is obsessed with the subject. His managers track workers in time-and-motion studies reminiscent, to a US audience, of the approach Henry Ford would go on to perfect in his auto factories. The ticking of a watch is often audible in the backdrop of the otherwise quiet town.

Inside the watch factory in Unrest. (Sydney Film Festival, 2022)

In the first shot from inside the factory, a manager holds a stopwatch in his hand as he stares over a worker’s shoulder. “Nineteen seconds,” he says, noting the time it took her to complete her part of the watch assembly. He moves on to another worker, Josphine Gräbli (Clara Gostynski), Unrest’s other lead alongside Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov).

“Ms. Gräbli, you’re about to balance the unrest wheel?” She does so as his stopwatch ticks. “You need to work faster,” he says, advising her on how to cut seconds off of the delicate work. If she listens to him, he explains, “you’ll be able to raise your work-rate, and to increase profits considerably for both of us.” Gräbli mumbles an “mm-hm,” not bothering to look at him. Then, he’s onto the next worker: “Let’s measure the time.”

The female workers must constantly perform their part of the assembly process in this fashion, with management goading them to speed up. “You could cheat a bit more,” one worker reprimands another after management walks away, “I worked slowly on purpose.” When she suggests that they should all work more slowly next time so as not to reveal to their employer the speed at which the work can be completed, the other woman responds with worry, “But then they might dismiss us because we don’t produce enough.”

Such is the tension of the era: the entrenchment of labor discipline, down to the second, and a workforce not accustomed to such control. While further advanced in other parts of Europe by the late nineteenth century, Saint-Imier bosses’ implementation of such control is still in transition. Standard Time hasn’t yet been adopted, making for the irony that the workers whose job is to produce the very items that will spread the intensification of labor discipline are themselves residents of a town that runs on four different clocks: factory time, municipal time, telegraph time, and railway time.

Confusion ensues. The watch factory’s management makes use of the inconsistency, as when they deduct an hour from an older worker’s pay after she is late because the post office uses municipal time. As Roulez says when asked why he won’t synchronize factory time to railway time, “My workers are eight minutes ahead of everybody else.”

It brings to mind testimonies upon which labor historian E. P. Thompson drew in “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism.” In the article, he quotes a worker at a textile mill: “There was nobody but the master and the master’s son who had a watch, and we did not know the time. There was one man who had a watch. . . . It was taken from him and given into the master’s custody because he had told the men the time of day.” Another worker speaks of similar manipulation: “The clocks at the factories were often put forward in the morning and back at night, and instead of being instruments for the measurement of time, they were used as cloaks for cheatery and oppression.”

Where is Kropotkin in all of this? When he first arrives in Saint-Imier, Gräbli offers to direct him to the factory. But it is being photographed for a sales catalog, and two gendarmes tell him to move out of the frame, making way, as it were, for the expansion of business. As they wait to be photographed, management workshops the catalog copy: “Nowadays, one cannot imagine a man without a watch in his hand.”

The gendarmes reappear throughout the film, forever telling residents to move out of frame. So, too, does photography, a relatively new, modern discipline transforming how the population sees itself. At lunch, Gräbli and her coworkers trade photo portraits of anarchists. She takes a particular interest in one of August Reinsdorf, a German anarchist who attempted to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm I and was hanged shortly thereafter.

Kropotkin explains to the gendarmes that he is “a geologist and cartographer,” in town to map the valley. This is true, but his map is of a particular sort: specifically, he is mapping anarchist activity in the region.

“An anarchist map reflects the perspective of the local population,” he explains to a fellow radical. “Contrary to the administration and other authorities, science must systematically reflect the ideas of the people instead of imposing external ideas onto them.” Such a map, he adds, should use the place-names locals favor, not those bestowed by others.

A sign on the wall of Saint-Imier’s telegraph office reads, “Keep it short. Your minutes are as precious as ours.” Such attention to numbers is everywhere in Unrest: payroll costs, the price of a photo, the time each worker takes to assemble her part, the number of pieces she produces per week, the price of a telegram.

Indeed, the scene in the telegram office is the film’s funniest: Kropotkin is there to send subversive dispatches to Chicago and Barcelona. He hands the dispatcher a piece of paper on which he has written the contents of his message, only for her to tell him that he must dictate it. This forces him to state, within earshot of everyone else in the office, that “the valley is without a doubt the capital point of the international anarchist rotation circle, introducing anti-governmental and anti-authoritarian tendencies into the socialist cause.”

As Kropotkin and a fellow anarchist are walking through town, adding to his map, Saint-Imier’s photographer asks if they’d like to have their photos taken. “You are anarchists,” he explains when Kropotkin asks him why he wants to photograph them. “You may be famous one day.” In Unrest’s final scene, the photographer asks workers outside of the factory if they’d like to buy any portraits. They see that he has one of Gräbli and another of Kropotkin, and we learn that the workers haven’t seen either of them in a while.

“Do they know each other?” asks one worker. “A love story?” suggests another to explain their sudden disappearance from Saint-Imier. “Maybe,” responds someone else. The photographer, listening to the workers’ speculation, sees an opportunity: when they ask him to remind them how much money he wants for the portraits, he raises the price. With that, the main characters pass into legend, and are assigned a price — just like everything else.