The Nation, “The Swiss Village that Made Kropotkin an Anarchist”

By J. Hoberman, June 14, 2023


Cyril Schäublin’s Unrest may be the most orderly movie about anarchists ever made. That is part of the point. Uncannily serene as well as romantic, absurdist, and politically astute, Unrest riffs on Pyotr Kropotkin’s 1870s visit to the Jura Mountains, then the center of the Swiss timepiece industry. (The title refers to a particular watch mechanism as well as a political situation.) Not yet the amiable Santa Claus apostle of mutual aid, the thirtysomething Kropotkin (played by the nonactor Alexei Evstratov) arrives in the Jura as a cartographer and leaves a convert. Schäublin prefaces the movie with a quote: “After staying a few weeks with the watchmakers, my views upon socialism were settled: I was an anarchist.”

Explorer Kropotkin has stumbled upon his Shangri-la. Saint-Imier, the remote town he’s come to map, is not only the locus of watchmaking in Switzerland but, as the site of the first congress of the Anarchist International, a crucible of modern times. Nascent globalization has disrupted old modes of production and consumption and enabled new modes of political organization. Manufacturers worry about losing international markets, while workers raise money for foreign comrades. New communication technologies have also revolutionized daily life. The photograph, only a few decades old, is the source of celebrity; the telegraph, invented slightly later, is the information highway. Society is hyper-regulated but not exactly rational. Saint-Imier has four time zones: train, church, factory, and telegraph office. Time is money, and timing is everything. The telegraph office has a sign warning patrons: “Keep it short. Your minutes are as precious as ours.” Upon arriving in Saint-Imier, Kropotkin is thrown into a new governing regime, under which the police are amiably ubiquitous and everyone is monitored.

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