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Unrueh / Unrest

Director: Cyril Schäublin (Switzerland). Year of Release: 2022

We open with a quote from Pyotr Kropotkin: “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.” We cut straight to a gaggle of parasol wielding society ladies, speaking in Russian. “Our Pyotr’s become an anarchist”, they coo. “While Marxism believes in the centralisation of state power, anarchism requires the building of autonomous regions, where everyone is free to make their own decisions”.

I may have misremembered the odd word, but not by much. Before the opening credits roll it is already clear that we are watching a film which has no grasp of meaningful exposition. This is not the last time that someone will make a long statement which not only they would never have said, but also uses vocabulary unfamiliar to any sentient being, The society ladies go on to say that Piotr has fallen in love with the photo of a woman who was executed for killing a predatory army officer.

We move on to a suburb of Saint-Imier near Bern in 1877, where Kropotkin has got work as a cartographer. His job is to make a map of the local area which includes some villages which were missing from the original plan. While trying to find the area which he is mapping, he bumps into Josephine Gräbli, a woman who works at the local clock factory. She offers to show him the way. Their path is blocked by bureaucrats engaged in a photo shoot of promis at the factory.

Gräbil is active in the anarchist trade union, although in the film she and Kropotkin prefer to talk about other things. Basil Exposition returns to tell us that single women were not eligible for health insurance so they turned to the local anarchist insurance group. We also learn that women, young people, and former criminals were ineligible to vote. As the anarchists are bound to lose, they arrange a write-in campaign for people to write “Property is Theft” on their ballot papers.

It is difficult to put in words exactly how mind-numbingly tedious Unrueh is. Now I have many criticisms of anarchism as a theory, but at the very least it is a philosophy of action, of trying to change the world. The film seems to sympathise with the anarchist workers that it depicts, but it shows little understanding, let alone interest in what they think and what they do. We see a lot of workers talking about anarchism without any sense of what anarchists want.

The union that organises the workers in the clock factory is remarkably inefficient. Sure, every so often they vote to levy 14% of their wages to support a strike in Baltimore. Occasionally someone reads out a statement by several anarchist groups in Italy saying that capitalism is on its last legs (actually that is worrying close to some anarchist groups that I know). But there is no sense that the anarchists are organising in their own workplaces.

When PR (or the 19th century equivalent) comes onto the shop floor and announce that 4 women are immediately sacked for being members of an anarchist confederation, no-one does anything. Now I understand the balance of class forces. It might well be that the union was just not strong enough to organise an action within the factory. But it just doesn’t even try to organise resistance. It is as if anarchism is about cheering on fights in Baltimore and Italy while doing nothing yourself.

Maybe this is why the factory boss is so indulgent of anarchism (while sacking individual anarchists). In one scene he asks a minion if he reads the anarchist press. When the minion says no, the boss tells him that he really should. The anarchists have great international networks and he has saved serious money reading their prediction of financial crisis. My point is not to say that anarchists are not just liberals with bombs, but that their defenders really need better arguments.

Unrueh shows us the alienation of labour in its clearest form. Although work in the clock factory is highly skilled, it is arduous, and requires workers to repeatedly carry out monotonous tasks. Any film that were serious about anarchism (or any other left politics) would show the soul-destroying nature of this work, but link it to a fight to change the working conditions. Unrueh wears us down with its scenes from the factory, then moves straight on to an abstract debate about clocks.

Some time towards the end of the film, Josephine makes a long speech about how her main job is to create the Unrueh, the Unrest. This is a central part of a mechanical clock which separates the different components and keeps the clock going. I am sure that this speech is meant to be deeply meaningful, but in the context of the struggles inside the factory it is unintelligible. Is the job of anarchists to keep everything going so that the bosses can make their profits? If it is not, what is she trying to say?

I regret that this is not the first time that I have written these words. This is a film which won a prize at the Berlinale, got a degree of critical acclaim. Nonetheless, I do not just disagree with people who are paid to write this sort of shit, I just fail to understand what they could see in this. There is so little emotion or feeling, that the unclarity of its politics is far from the worst thing about the film. It is all just a self-indulgent waste of time. But apart from that, was it any good?

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