Even though practically no one has seen it, Unrest (Unrueh) is certainly the film of 2023. The best film? Easily a top 10. The most relevant? Absolutely.
2023, the year of Hot Labor Summer, now Hot Labor Fall. The WGA Strike, the SAG-AFTRA Strike, the UAW’s innovative “stand-up” strikes, the LA Hotel Workers strike, you could keep going. Over 450,000 workers have struck in the U.S. this year. It’s a radical moment in America, and it deserves a radical film in form, theme, and entertainment.
Unrest is the second feature film from Swedish director Cyril Schäublin (Those Who Are Fine, Lenny). Expanding on his previous short film Kropotkin (2018), the film tells the story of mapmaker Pyotr Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov) and a group of Swiss Anarchist watchmakers in 1877. It’s the moment in history when efficiency data can first be tracked, or held against you, and the workers who make it possible have become its first victims. In the face of this new tyranny of time, the hourly quota, resistance forms among the townspeople. Unrest shows us these things, but more importantly, it helps us feel the quiet drama and absurdity in them. It’s about what work means to the human experience, and all the exploitation, solidarity, and desire for democracy that comes with it.
In a very special manner, Unrest uses characterization to deliver these themes as enriching entertainment. The point of the film is that all are equal and deserving of dignity, and this is replicated in the structure of its cast. Like last year’s democratic film Women Talking (2023), there is no lead performance, nor are there supporting characters, there is just the community. In lesser films, this would lead to dry, underbaked performances. Instead, magically, Schäublin draws deep portraits out of actor and non-actor performances alike, creating some of the most knowable, quietly funny, and lovely characters this year.
For example, one of the main drivers of conflict is the choice of street people walk down. The factory owners have used their stopwatches to time how long they think it takes to walk every street, which they have re-labeled in alphanumeric sequence, “A2,” “C10,” etc. One of the executives frequently pops up in a white trench coat to “um-actually” the citizens of the town for taking streets that cost the factory 2 or 3 seconds of productivity. It’s that universal experience of a bad boss who doesn’t know how to do your job, insisting you do it worse. We all know that boss, we all know that character.
While the arrival of Kropotkin is the film’s inciting incident, this is the story of all involved, the Fascist party, the Anarchists, and the bystanders. For many viewers, this experience would be that of a new kind of cinema, a leftist cinema rarely seen in the United States. When watching films well, it’s important to view them without your own expectations, and that can even extend to expectations of what “films” are. The closest American frame of reference for its structure would be the classically right-leaning “faith-based” genre of film.
“Your time is short, keep it brief.”
Right-wing philosophy is particularly suited to American film in general because of its individualistic nature, creating narratives easily digestible within Cambell’s hero’s journey. This is how we get Qanon-pilled films like Sound of Freedom (2023), panned by critics and criticized by real sex trafficking advocates, making $235 million at the box office, even as the film’s real-life hero is outed as a prolific sexual predator himself. It’s difficult to extract the message for dissection because it’s so entwined in the structure of solid entertainment. Discussing the “faith-based film” is important here, because that genre of film is by nature, evangelistic, and the film’s message needs to be able to stand apart from the entertainment, while still being bolstered by it. They not only want to tell their story, they want to convert the audience to believers in their thesis, and, by volume, this is almost exclusively a right-wing, evangelical Christian phenomenon. Yet Unrest wants to do this for the idea of worker solidarity, and miraculously pulls it off.
This separation of message and filmmaking is often the root cause of the “faith-based” genre’s poor quality control, outside of the Kendrik Brothers, who usually understand that the Christian faith should be communal, not individualistic. Facing the Giants (2006) is so watchable because of the synergy between an ensemble cast and communal faith, whereas the God’s Not Dead films are hero-driven films set inside pundit hypotheticals. In contrast, films about faith by older Christian denominations such as Catholics, tend to be films about individuals who internally struggle with their personal faith when confronted physically by external forces. Signs (2002), Silence (2016), and The Exorcist (1973) are easy examples across different genres. Unrest breaks this paradigm by creating the evangelistic message through internal confrontation with an external force, yet with a de-centered, communal cast. A new cinematic form for U.S. audiences that is potentially distancing on first watch, but well worth it, and very effective. Key to all of this is the incredibly specific dialogue laid on top of its structure.
Unrest is dryly witty, which this author finds hilarious, though your mileage may vary. It’s not an out-and-out comedy like Bottoms (2023) or Barbie (2023), but its farcical moment in history allows it to constantly fire off astute observations about human behavior. The locals have begun to trade wet-plate photographs (photos printed on metal via acid) like trading cards, but the most valuable photos are those of the dead, so the local photographer is always asking to take photos of people he thinks are going to die soon. The local Fascist party and the anarchists hold competing fundraising lotteries, and the fascists give more than a dozen guns to their single winner. The film also takes place at a moment of above-average civic engagement, and so like the best writings of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) or Christopher Nolan (Inception), characters are able to rattle off discussions of complex political ideas in easily digestible lines. It’s the ultimate “people good at their jobs talking about their jobs” movie, because what they’re discussing is the foundation of the next 145 years of jobs. Matching the communal structure, the performances all stay at around the same pitch, the loudest anyone gets being a bartender projecting across the room.
In order to visually represent the idea of community, this film is shot like nothing else, though comparison can still be illustrative. It employs the soft-digital look of films like A Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), but it’s shot largely in deep focus akin to Citizen Kane (1941). It’s tiring to say that a location is a character, but the valley of Saint Imier really is. The community is constantly present and changing in these painterly, compressed compositions. Even the inserts are spectacular. One of a river through the trusses of a bridge, shot from a passing train, is mind-bendingly good. It’s such a shame that the film’s distribution will be just DVD or streaming because it’d be a gorgeous-looking Blu-ray.
Unrest is a hard sell to casual audiences, so it makes sense that it didn’t make a big splash after its New York Film Festival debut this past May, but it deserved to. This author has thought about no other film this year as often as Unrest, and that’s coming from a guy who’s watched Jeffery Wright’s speech from Asteroid City at least three dozen times. Entertaining, beautiful, and thought-provoking, it’s the definition of that film Twitter classic phrase: “Finally, some good f*cking food.” Once it’s available, you owe it to yourself to set your expectations aside, and seek it out.
Available on DVD from KimStim on November 7th, 2023.
Available to stream in the U.S. on the Criterion Channel February 1st, 2024.
For more information, head to the official KimStim Unrest webpage.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.