Cyril Schäublin on Having Time on His Side in “Unrest”

Cyril Schäublin would be the last to tell you he was making history with “Unrest,” in spite of the ensemble in front of him on the set of his latest film, all dressed in 19th century garb as they reenacted life in the Jura Mountains of Switzerland where watchmaking is nearly everyone’s line of work, but if he needed a reminder that any recreation of the past has its limits, he just needed to call one of his actors with the cell phones that were tucked into hidden nooks and crannies of any given location that he’d use to communicate when he often shoots at 300 meters away with a long lens, a distance that he can’t easily communicate with his voice alone.

Ironically, the further away Schäublin gets — from both any scene in question and the idea of historical accuracy as a whole — the closer he gets to the truth in his extraordinary second feature, seizing upon the monumental year of 1877 when the anarchist movement was gaining traction around the world with the exploitation of workers only growing as a result of the burgeoning industrial revolution. He honors his subjects by largely avoiding having any one of them be central to the frame for too long, instead taking wide shots of workers tinkering with timepieces (the title’s literal meaning comes from the balance wheel) within factories and furtively organizing outside of it, though it is a cause that is well-regarded enough by the public that raffle tickets to help fund it find support on the city streets as the town prepares to celebrate an anniversary of a military victory.

The film itself never comes across as anachronistic, but it syncs up profoundly to the current moment when Schäublin considers time in such an innovative way, turning what could be an amusing running gag about the need to constantly rechange clocks around town to reflect the different schedules dictated by the forces that govern people’s daily lives, whether at work or the church or the local train, into sharp insight about the arbitrary nature of time when those in power can easily push it in one direction or another for their own needs and everyone else lives in fear of not abiding by it. Ironically since its premiere at Berlinale last year, “Unrest” has become appointment viewing on the festival circuit where it both enchanted and activated audiences around the world and with the film now reaching the U.S., Schäublin pulled back the curtain a bit to talk about how deconstructing ideas of how history is written led to this architectural marvel, the depth added from enlisting people from all walks of life as his cast and the discretion to decide what ideas should endure and what shouldn’t.

You’ve said you had this story in mind for some time. Was there something that made this the right time to start working on this?

The idea has been with me for quite a while because I come from a watchmaker family, so I knew I would like to explore a watch factory as a space and it fell into place. We asked ourselves, what does it mean to do a film set in the past? And quite quickly, it revealed to me that every film is in the end a construction about the past and that we cannot objectively show the year 1877, so it was important to somehow show in the film that the past is constructed as [much as] the film is a construction, and this [idea of] decentralization has to do with that because there’s a decentralizing movement when you do historiography [where] people say what was important in the past and what was not and we didn’t want to do this. So by decentralizing the image or working with the marginal spaces [it was] a way to show that we don’t really know about the past or about the image itself. We are just trying to construct something to show this [history].

That decentralization happens not only narratively in the large cast of characters you follow, but also in the image itself with these wonderful tableau shots. At what point did you start location scouting in the Jura Mountains to figure out how to frame this?

It was quite important to prepare these images and to travel to the spaces, to spend time there, and also listening to those spaces and landscapes and not knowing them before we [first] met them, so it was an open search. And it was quite important to prepare these shots the best way we could, because the people who appear in those shots are allowed to be fragile and unstable in a positive sense, so there’s a contradiction between these kind of prepared, steady, static shots and the bodies which are quite free to move how they want to move. Maybe this can tell a little bit about the state of the human body in what is called capitalism [where there are] all these rules and machines that surround us, but we still have [autonomy].

You carry over this style of filming with a long lens from your previous film, where it was able to speak to an idea of distance in the way we communicate, but here it conveys the power dynamics at play. Was it interesting to use a similar technique towards different aims?

It goes hand in hand with that questioning of ourselves — who says what is important and what is not important [in history]? And isn’t in the end everything important? Every face, every hand, every meeting, even so-called marginal moments like workers having a break outside a factory and to treat not only people equal but also objects? But at the same time, [it was a way to] be honest with the fact that filmmaking itself, [which] serves itself with technology — that camera is a machine as well, and based on time measurement. So this kind of distanced shot is for me trying to be one with the machine and not trying to hide it as a part of filmmaking, not trying to seduce the spectator and telling them, oh, you should forget that you’re watching a film right now, but to be engaged with the tools we have in our hands.

It was fascinating to learn that you’ll often cast people from different professions — for instance, Clara Gostynski, who plays one the the watchmakers Josephine, is actually an architect. What’s it like seeing them engage with a film set or with their roles when they come to it with work experience but not that traditional acting background?

Yeah, I think maybe it’s been like this for a while, but especially these days we live in a time where meaning and language has become so absolute. There’s a monopolization of meaning [where] people can say this is valid, this word means this and that’s it and that’s how we can look at the world using this language, these words. And what usually happens when you make a feature film is that you create a language which is then asked to be uttered or spoken by the acting people — you write a script, and I think this is also part of this monopolization business. What we find interesting when we do this film is that the people who appear in the film can bring their own knowledge and their own thinking and understanding of the world into the film. They don’t have to adapt towards the film. The film adapts towards them, so, let’s say we meet in the morning to do this film and there’s a truck driver from Slavny, there’s a watchmaker and there’s an architect from Zurich. There’s tons of different people who have never met each other and do something completely different to filmmaking in their real life, but they put on these costumes and then we just find out [what happens]. It’s very important that their own life and understanding of things can have a place in the film.

How do you actually go about recruiting people to appear in the film?

They’re mostly my friends, so I just ask people which I know, and I just have a feeling that it will work out if they’re interested to appear in a film. But otherwise, there was an open casting call for watchmakers from these regions, so it’s a mix of things.

When you were talking to your own family about this, were you finding these smaller details that might not be recorded in history?

Yeah, and that’s also why we asked watchmakers to be in the film. For example, Josephine, the main character spent time with a watchmaker to understand the unrest wheel, the balance wheel. But in the end, I have never worked in a watch factory myself and it’s very far from my experience, so it was important to have people in the film who were really experienced, like one of the the guys who runs the atelier and controls the [workers on the floor] and takes the time, he really worked in a watch factory doing exactly this, so we reenacted certain situations which were already happening.

Did you find in your research there actually was a convergence at that time of this celebration of the Battle of Morat with a growing trend towards unionization?

Yeah, we worked with a historical advisor and those events happened in that year, although the Battle of Morat was in 1876 and that was interesting because [we could] actually use this history in order to define the present. It’s not only made with us when we make this film, but I think it was also made in that time itself, so the question of what will be remembered — [such as] these official holidays that were created like the 4th of July in the U.S., there are other things that could be remembered as well, and it’s [all] an invention, right? There are thousands of other possibilities what the society could or should remember, and that’s interesting that some part of the population suggested why don’t we remember the Paris Commune that happened a few years before instead of a medieval battle that tries to create this nationalist fervor amongst people. That’s a decision that we make, what to focus on in the past in order to define the present.

You can feel the pressure of the society through the sound design, which also gives the film a musicality when you don’t have a traditional score yet can hear time ticking away in the watch factory. What was it like to figure this out?

We had to block streets because there were in those watchmaking valleys in Switzerland now there’s a lot of traffic, so we had to block those streets in order to drive quiet. And then it was really quiet. [laughs] And it was really important, like on my first movie, to have something pulling you through [the narrative] like machine techno in the background, so that was all created. And [in “Unrest”] we worked with so many different ways to create an industrial atmosphere of the 19th century with machine sounds in the background and all kinds of stuff and we were really free because it was so quiet. We live in a world where in urban zones there is so much sound from the traffic and once you take this away, it’s interesting how distant the machines are that surround us. Industrialized zones are marginalized in cities — there are no more slaughterhouses in the central towns, for example, like there were like 100 years ago. So we had to build it up from scratch and it was a wonderful experience to do this. I liked it a lot.

It’s such a resonant film today. What it’s been like for you to take this around the world and see the reactions?

It was beautiful in many senses, [especially] in the sense that the film talks about one of the original premises of socialism called international solidarity, which today almost sounds like old-fashioned, or naive, but it was really important in the beginning of the socialist and anarchist movement, which is beyond the concept of nations. At the same time there were these possibilities with technology in the 1870s to create an international community between San Francisco and the Swiss watchmaking valley and Barcelona, creating an anarchist community, with the telegraph, so this was really great to do this today with the technological means we have today to visit those places, to talk to people, to exchange [ideas] and to see that all over the world there is the question, what is this that we call our present? How is it built? And how can we change these mechanics that make our present the way it is?

“Unrest” opens on May 5th in New York at Film at Lincoln Center and May 19th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and May 26th at the FilmScene in Iowa City.

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