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Central European Time: Andrew Norman Wilson Interviews Cyril Schäublin on Unrest

Monks in long, white robes work on watches in a multi-level building embellished with dark wood fixtures.A scene from Unrest, courtesy of KimStim.

Provoked by a recent artist residency at La Becque in Switzerland, I started to develop a Swiss-set romantic fantasy film called Interlaken that will take place between an ancient alien theme park and a Swiss heritage open-air museum, both located on the outskirts of the titular town. 

Amid multiple trips back to what has been called the “playground of Europe,” I probed archives, forums, blogs, databases and gray matter for cinematic depictions of Switzerland, which is more of a challenge than one would think considering it’s squeezed, accordion-like, between France, Germany, Italy and Austria, each of which has fostered four of the continent’s most prominent film industries, producing icons like Bresson, Murnau, Fellini and Lang. Even Godard, raised primarily on the Swiss side of Lake Geneva by Swiss parents, was born in Paris and has by and large been claimed by La République.

Viewed through an international lens, Switzerland is often figured according to its postcard image. Yash Raj–produced films such as Aditya Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge fixed Swiss holidays in the Indian cultural imaginary. At least five Bond films have opted for the Alps as an arena for a secret agent with a penchant for mixing business with pleasure. Clint Eastwood’s The Eiger Sanction parodied that aging spy-thriller franchise while setting nearly half of its runtime at one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Hitchcock’s first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much literally opens with Swiss travel brochures.

These wayfaring perspectives tend to eclipse native output on the international market, perhaps because Swiss nationals seem less inclined to exploit their natural resources than foreign sightseers doped up on sublime beauty. Most of my favorite Swiss productions—Clemens Klopfenstein and Remo Legnazzi’s Land of Fire All Night Long, Fredi M. Murer’s We Who Dwell in the Mountains Cannot Be Blamed for Being There, Alain Tanner’s The Salamander and several of Godard’s films from the 1980s—treat Switzerland as just another place on earth where human dramas unfold. Even when Swiss directors do ascend the majestic Alps, as in Markus Imhoof’s The Mountain and Murer’s Alpine Fire, they’re prone to offset the snowcapped splendor with excruciating physical and psychological torment.

The most notable Swiss filmmakers working today seem to oscillate between complicating the national mythos through tried-and-true narrative reorientations (Ursula Meier’s Sister, which takes the employees’ view of resorts) or just plain ignoring it in service of more formal ends (the Zürcher brothers’ interior-bound The Girl and the Spider). But for my purposes, Cyril Schäublin’s investigations into how fictions such as nations, economies and images are constructed have the strongest pull. After hearing enthusiastic reports from Berlin about his Encounters winner Unrest (2022), I streamed his first feature, Those Who Are Fine (2017), for free on Tubi. 

Dwarfed and contained within urban space and horizonless framings, the deadpan characters of Those Who Are Fine are often caught reciting bank codes, serial numbers and phone plan conditions amid the blank fortifications of Zurich’s corporate architecture. Bourne, Bond and girls with dragon tattoos are nowhere to be seen as an unassuming story emerges in which a call center agent who typically sells health insurance and internet subscriptions starts to contact elderly women, purporting to be their granddaughters and in dire financial straits. Naturally, the administrators of this world—bank employees and police officers—present obstacles to this get-rich-quick scheme. 

Unrest (2022), named in reference to the unrest component, or balance wheel—a watch part that characters within the film work on, as did Schäublin’s actual ancestors—reconstructs a distant past from historical materials, including the memoirs of the renowned anarchist geographer Pyotr Kropotkin, written during his stay in the Swiss watchmaking town Saint-Imier during the 1870s. It was here that Kropotkin encountered an Anarchist Internationale struggling to define its own notions of time, value and labor against the nascent yet already dominant logics of capitalist nationalism. While Schäublin pursues a similar formal approach to his prior feature—including an emphasis on matter-of-fact recitations of information—space, law, identity and social relations are less determined in Unrest’s world, and paths of escape from these logics, however ephemeral, are suggested not only through various forms of anti-authoritarian activism but also via a presumably romantic encounter between Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov) and a factory worker named Josephine (Clara Gostynski).

I spoke with Schäublin before a screening of his film at the 60th New York Film Festival in October 2022. Unrest enters limited release from KimStim beginning on May 5. 

Filmmaker: As an artist, I’m forced to describe my work, and to accept how other people feel it should be described, in ways that often feel compromising. How do you like to describe Unrest to yourself, outside of the circuits of discourse and publicity?

Schäublin: It’s stimulating for me that it’s not really possible to describe a film or images. It’s a beautiful beginning, trying to describe something—you acknowledge that you cannot ultimately find the language to describe something. I like this impossibility when I talk to friends or people I collaborate with, trying to circle around this. Of course, I watch films, but I think poetry has been more dear to me.

Filmmaker: You read poetry every day?

Schäublin: In some ways, yes. I think it’s this Wittgenstein moment that he describes, that the limits of my language are the limits of my world. When you have children, or when you learn a new language, I think you get to this point when you understand that there is so much fragility to be found in trying to utter something at all because you get to a point where your world, or the idea of the world that you are in, starts to fall apart in a good way. 

Filmmaker: Unrest is rife with capitalist mythology. How do you go about writing a script that demystifies that mythology? And do you consider your work as a screenwriter and director to be deconstructionist? Because you talk about the fragility of the way in which we describe things, and the stories we tell ourselves.

Schäublin: I’m not sure if it’s demystifying this mythology or, by putting it out there as a mythology, mystifying it. What’s so bizarre or surprising, especially in Switzerland but of course also here in New York—places where capital, how do you say, like a good garden can grow—[is that] this mythology has become so integrated and executed by human bodies, which constantly lift and do all of this together. We fit to the schedules of the plans, often so easily and willingly and without friction—we just do it. It’s actually quite surprising, if you look at it. So, I think for me, it’s not only tragic, this mythology—of course it’s terrifying—but I think it’s, for me, a good start to mystify it in some way. When I saw my old friend Fidel, who was sharing a studio space with me, talking to his bank on the phone, it appeared to me that he is a human body, a physical being, and he does that. While life and all its mysteries are going by, you’re talking to a bank and saying passwords. That’s beautiful in some way and funny and tragic at the same time. While working on Unrest, I was less interested in this idea of a revolution—like Simone Weil has said, maybe religion is not the opium for the people, but revolution is the opium for the people. What’s interesting about the watchmakers and the beginning of those unions is that, instead of destroying the order, they were creating new orders, which then could do something to the existing order. 

Filmmaker: My understanding of the origin of the film is that it seems to hinge on language and meaning. There’s the unrest piece—a watch part—embedded within a particular moment of political unrest that was born out of the dynamic between anarchist and nationalist politics, and the latter’s attendant mode of capitalist production. Therefore, the work is rather discursive and dialogical. So, I’m wondering if you could talk about the difficulty of having to teach us as viewers about historical information and ideology by filming groups of people standing in conversation, while still pursuing your own formal interests.

Schäublin: With historical films, you must take a choice and select information, right? Of course, a film that takes place in the present also [requires a] choice of information [presented]. But with a historical film, it’s very clear that we cannot objectively show the year 1877. It’s not possible, so the construction of it is very in-your-face. For me, that’s more interesting than trying to inform people, to try to, as simply as possible, address our present through a detour through this past—our relationship to time and money and these imagined communities—and to take situations that might have happened, like that the anarchist community in that village was trying to reenact the Paris Commune, while at the same time the Nationalist movement wanted to reenact this medieval battle of Murten, which took place in the year 1476.

This unrest piece is also a big question. I come from a watchmaking family, and many women in my family have done this work of regulating this unrest balance wheel. What can we say about them at all? What do we know? There is not much information. Much more is to be found in the archives about men—bourgeois men, but even working-class. So, language-wise, this was very important for the film: We cannot reconstruct biographies or psychologies, but we can reconstruct the work, the labor that the women were doing, because people can still work with these machines. And that’s also a language, like in Simone Weil’s [La condition ouvrière] when she describes her time in the steel factory in the late 20s, early 30s. She talks a lot about what’s actually happening in a factory when you work there. I mean, the biggest thing my family was doing was this work all the time—noting things down, regulating the numbers. That’s what was happening, and it’s also language connected. We were working with watchmakers from the present, this old guy who was a supervisor, telling workers how to work faster and optimizing the work process, this performance of capitalist mythology with human bodies. There is a distance between the two. When you stick to a machine, there is something in between, because you’re a human body. It’s the same plan for everybody—when you and [I] work on the same machine, it’s the same condition, but we have different physical bodies and structures. With labor language, it’s also that. You have these human people who are in the same room together talking about these things, but they’re doing it. And in this distance, for me, is a lot of beauty, tragedy and it’s really funny, also.

Filmmaker: Both films are saturated with information. There are the historical and geographical contexts but then, also, an emphasis on how time, value and space are converted into information and then organized. Characters drone on about these
informational systems to the point that they become farcical. Are there literary influences for this absurdist strain in your work, and how might they relate to what you’re communicating with it?

Schäublin: I think it also goes a bit into what I’ve said before, this absurdity that I find funny but tragic at the same time—people just doing this all the time and it’s so frictionless, but it’s so crazy if you think about it. But as I said, poetry is very important—Patrizia Cavalli, the Italian poet who just died, is someone I read a lot. Robert Lax, an American artist. And I’m sort of addicted to Chekhov short stories. I have never read a play [of his]—which is very bizarre because everybody tells me I have to, and I will. I think it will be very interesting. Of course, I’ve seen his plays.

Filmmaker: You’ve seen film adaptations, I’m sure.

Schäublin: I guess. But the volume of his short stories is so big, it’s incredible. It’s endless because he wrote them to survive and make money. He published them in magazines and newspapers. I think there are over 4,000 pages, and I’ve read maybe 3,000 by now. And I’m re-reading them a lot as well, so I really live in this world. It’s bizarre, but I can’t change it. Chekhov for me is the best. There’s so much understanding and so much questioning at the same time. Also, I think how he talks about people in these stories—you immediately are repulsed, like it’s terrible to know them. You are very fond of them at the same time. And that’s incredible, this complexity of values, juggling all the randomness and easiness, and that everything is that in one story. The very short funny ones, like from 1883 to ’86, two or three pages long, those are really the ones. I can recommend “At the Barber’s” or, from later, “The Kiss.” 

Filmmaker: And did these stories figure directly into Unrest for you?

Schäublin: I have no clue. It’s funny because a Russian film critic I’m really fond of, Mikhail Ratgauz, wrote a text about my first film, and I have never spoken about Chekhov before to anybody, really—I mean, to friends, but not publicly. So, he read somewhere that I liked also Brecht, and wrote this article that a Russian friend translated with Google Translate. He says that although I seem to like Brecht, he really sees only Chekhov in this first film—which was very bizarre because [the film has] nothing to do with Russia, it’s [set] in the present. [It] was interesting and beautiful for me, how he got there. But it’s not like I take Chekhov short stories and I’m like, how can I turn them into a film? It’s like I need to read those stories because I need to, not because I think they will help me with filmmaking, but they are kind of there [in the films]. 

Filmmaker: Regarding the making of Unrest—for a film that’s about the organization of time, money and labor, how is your set organized? And have there been specific strategies employed throughout your work that resist the capitalist mode of making a film? Because what I’ve been learning recently in moving from the artist’s studio to film sets is how entrenched their hierarchies and divisions of labor are. These structures serve the production process very well, and much of the labor pool is completely reliant on them. So, as a director, if you don’t act like a factory foreman, things unwind.

Schäublin: It’s not that I think about deconstructing capitalism when making a film but how you could create a different order. Because anarchist watchmakers in Switzerland, like this guy who has a little role in the film, he even mentions the working class who become capitalists in the sense he understood the word “capitalist” in the late 1860s—not as a totally bad word, but somebody who organizes and does something. It’s like, yeah, you have a business to do, the market is there. It’s not bad, the question is how. And I think that’s very interesting to think about. Let’s think of a ship with a lot of people on it. It needs organization—it’s not possible that everybody has the same labor, so you need division of labor. You need a discussion about decision-making [and] who takes that position. In some situations, you cannot discuss and ask everybody—when there is a storm coming and you have 20 minutes, somebody needs to decide. So, when you’re 20 people working on a set, you can discuss—it’s very important for me to have as much space as possible for discussion and collective approaches to how we do it—but at some point, we need to do it, and I go into this tunnel and do a lot of decisions. At the same time, knowing this, for me it’s very important that I meet everybody who will be part of the film, even if it’s [somebody who’s] supposed to be somewhere low in the hierarchy of filmmaking. [The hierarchy] is something I don’t care about at all. We pay equal wages, also. We try to do it, in a sense, as an open space: I meet all these people, we go for coffees, I give them books, they share their ideas. I’ve been in wonderful work situations when people made a film, and I think it’s very important to be aware of how you run it, how you connect and who you work with and everything. Maybe it’s also a question of the size because the smaller it is, the more you can engage.

Filmmaker: What was the average shooting crew during principal photography?

Schäublin: 12 to 15 people. It was nice.

Filmmaker: Do you go into the film shooting with a clear idea of how it will be structured, and does that then make editing rather painless? Or is it something closer to how Albert Serra recently described the making of Pacifiction, in which thousands of hours of footage were transcribed, and then the structure was determined in the edit? 

Schäublin: For this film, I wasn’t panicking, but with the first film—there was a script and everything, but it was more like calling people: “Are you free next Thursday? Are you free tomorrow in the afternoon?” This was more the situation, this easy inviting [of] possibilities, and it was very different in that sense. With the second film, I suddenly realized, if I write in the script [that] there is a telegraph station, four people all over Switzerland will do research and start to find stuff to build a telegraph station. It’s a big thing, so I understood I have to have quite clear, precise decisions. Also, who was in which scene was quite easy with the first film because my friend did costumes. I asked somebody, “Are you free in three days to shoot something?” then she went to their house, looked at their clothes, maybe went to a secondhand place and bought something else. But it was adjustable. When you make a historical film, you need [to ask] costume questions. If I ask Danny, the bartender in the film who’s also in the first film, it’s a different situation than if I ask Valentin, who’s the factory owner in the film, who’s taller than Danny and is not [as] big—you cannot give him [that] costume. You have to organize the costumes beforehand and make sure that he will be there on that day when we will shoot.

I went to this residency I got in France, in Marseilles at the seaside, and had three weeks to finalize the shooting script. It was brutal, but good, because it structured the whole thing, and I learned a lot from that for the next film. So, we were shooting a lot, but having these wide shots, it’s like a trick. It’s maybe like a game—you have this wide shot, then you have these close-ups where you can experiment with dialogue, then you film the end of the situation, which in Those Who Are Fine was much more unclear. But for this film, I needed to know how to end it. I really like editing a lot. It’s one of my favorite phases. It’s very pleasing for me because there’s not much possibility. If you have 10 camera angles and moving stuff, you can go crazy. It’s already in there, the logic. I just need to help it to get there.

Filmmaker: So, a lot of the planning was also sequencing, in terms of planning dialogue and action ahead of time?

Schäublin: Yeah.

Filmmaker: I’m curious—the film hasn’t played in theaters in Switzerland yet, has it?

Schäublin: No, not yet.

Filmmaker: Do you have a sense already, how is it being received in Switzerland, in particular, among people who might relate to the nationalists, the capitalists, like political leaders or economic elites? And then, on the other hand, people who might relate to the anarchists, like artists—I know there’s still a strong presence of anarchists in Switzerland, more so than other countries in Western Europe.

Schäublin: I’m excited to know how this will be. I can just say one of the seven federal counsels of Switzerland saw the film last week in Mexico, and I’ve had interesting talks with him. And there were a lot of anarchist people joining for the screenings. “Anarchism” is a word that I love a lot because it’s still doing its job of a decentralizing idea because it’s not a finalized word. It has more than one sense.

Filmmaker: Right—libertarian anarchism, left anarchism and so on.

Schäublin: Yes, and everybody who pretends or says they own this idea of what it is is suspicious, because that’s not what this word can do and what all these myriads of meanings can get to. I think it should be questionable and should create questions. That’s my most important wish for this film—that you show the constructedness of things, and how these juxtaposed orders work with each other and how we can invent the world, really. So, I don’t know. But when we were shooting and these men were singing the National Anthem, there were some old guys coming to me [from] the extras, and were like, “This was so touching. I haven’t been this emotional in years.” And it was like, oh my god. So, it will be interesting to see how they will react to it.

Filmmaker: Amid all this chatter about information and organization, love and death seem to maintain a priceless, incalculable status within the film. My understanding of the lovers’ walk at the end, due to the shot of the hanging pocket watch suddenly stopping while they’re elsewhere offscreen, is that they seem to neglect time, and even representation, through love. Even though information about love and death adds value to the photographs—such as the love story behind their portraits or the detail that another is a portrait of an assassinated anarchist—their love and that death themselves elude capture. Could you talk about the special status those two things share in the film?

Schäublin: When we were talking about capitalist mythology and machines and all the cities and things that we created and are now wearing and drinking and sitting on, there is still something beyond, a territory that feels loose. In the end, there’s the thing that Arthur Rimbaud said, that love needs to be reinvented—or you can also read it that love makes you reinvent things. And these words that you mentioned, love and death, [meaning is] still open for them. We cannot ultimately define [them] with this world that we created—but this famous phrase, love still makes the world turn. Somebody at a screening came to me and said, “They don’t deliver data anymore.” You always create data that [are] usable. And by leaving the clock hanging there, they don’t create data anymore. So, they’re somewhere beyond the known, I hope.

Filmmaker: And is that why you choose not to represent what I assume to be a sexual encounter, or violent death? 

Schäublin: Yeah.

Filmmaker: And romance is referred to, but it’s always offscreen.

Schäublin: Yeah, like violence. My life feels so marginalized—I don’t feel like a citizen of a nation. I have a passport and stuff, but I feel like I’m somewhere completely else, at the margins of that. I think the impact of assassinations is much more interesting when people talk about that somewhere far off [rather] than the moment when it’s happening. Because that was the reason for them to be happening at the beginning—the propaganda of fact, it was called, that an assassination will infect other people to do it, but of course also help the anarchist cause to be in the discourse of the public. So, I think what happens at the outskirts of those events of death and violence and creation of nationalist and capitalist mythology is much more interesting because that’s when it works. That’s what it’s meant to do. It is created to work at the margins of its territory.

Filmmaker: We have this received image of Switzerland that’s chocolate, cheese and watches, yet your film reads as a border film. The Jura region is near the national border, and we hear French and German throughout. Kropotkin, one of the central figures in Unrest, is a Russian polymath passing through town. It seems like you’re complicating our perceived image of Switzerland through this work, while still acknowledging that you’re a Swiss clockmaker’s child.

Schäublin: Playing all the games, yeah. And still, of course, there are watches in the film and a lot of money, you know?

Filmmaker: Right. And everything’s very ordered.

Schäublin: I think more than deconstructing Switzerland, it’s the wish to show the constructedness of the concept of nation—to show that we perform something which has been created somewhere far away, and to show that, or to try to give a space to that, so we can invent new parallel orders.

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