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    Still from the film Unrest, a young woman fixing a clock

    Resisting the Tyranny of the Clock

    Two exceptional new films, Unrest and R.M.N., help us think about labor conditions today.

    By Tim Markatos

    October 27, 2022

    In a stroke of great irony, I was running late to one of my most anticipated titles of this year’s New York Film Festival, a brisk, ninety-five-minute Swiss movie about, of all things, timekeeping.

    Unrest, by director Cyril Schäublin, is set near the end of the nineteenth century at a watch factory somewhere near the Swiss-German border. The Russian political philosopher Pyotr Kropotkin (Alexei Evstratov) has recently come to town and joined up with leaders of the local anarchist movement, who work at pubs and during smoke breaks to organize the factory employees for better working conditions. Among those employees is Josephine (Clara Gostynski), who specializes in the manufacture of the titular unrest mechanism responsible for keeping a watch ticking, and who is singled out by Kropotkin for particular romantic interest.

    Though movies set in this era are a dime a dozen, Unrest sounds like no other period film I can think of. Nearly every scene of the film is underscored by the mechanical hums, drones, and pulses that constitute the daily soundtrack of the workers’ lives. (Toward the end, when Kropotkin and Josephine slip away from the factory, the manmade sounds are merely replaced with birdsongs that follow their own logical, repetitive rhythms.) Visually the film takes some chances as well. What some may find an overly studied or pretentious filmmaking choice I was personally quite smitten by: Schäublin alternates standard close up shots of characters speaking and working with off-center wide shots, the people shunted to the far corners of the frame and smaller in scale beside their built environment. This patterning of scenes strikes a compromise between the storyteller’s need to provide a human face for audiences to relate to and the theorist’s desire to pull back from human subjectivity to reveal the constructed underpinnings of life. Even Kropotkin doesn’t factor into the story nearly as much as I’ve made it sound – he practically disappears among the rest of the cast, notable more for his strong beard than anything else.

    Still from the film Unrest, a young woman fixing a clock

    Clara Gostynski in Unrest

    In a Q&A following the film, Schäublin and actress Clara Gostynski shared their personal investments in the film: both have ancestors who worked in watch factories. In writing his characters, and Josephine in particular, Schäublin said that he was challenged by the lack of biographical records about women in this era; Gostynski, an architect by trade (none of the film’s characters were portrayed by professional thespians), prepared for her role by taking a weeklong crash course with a watchmaker over Zoom. For all the historical and technical research that went into the film, Schäublin insisted that his intention was foremost to make a film about contemporary working conditions by means of a period piece.

    Plenty of details in Unrest invite comparison with labor conditions today. In one technically impressive but haunting scene, a foreman times a worker to see how quickly he can assemble a certain piece of a watch. Twenty-two seconds: and so a new standard is set for the whole labor force. The factory owners keep the building’s own internal clocks running four minutes faster than those in town, as a show of power and reminder of the constructed nature of time as well as a tactic to hasten production. The capitalist class in the film also stoops to union-busting, undermining the budding anarchist collective by dismissing four women – of course they’re women – from the factory after their affiliation with the group has been found out.

    There is a spiritual dimension to collective action that is both its strength and also the point at which it is susceptible to failure and corruption.

    Yet not all is misery. The scenes of solidarity, whether person-to-person or in a whole group, are moving even when the filmmaking keeps a distance from the interior lives of most of the characters. A short scene of workers joining together in a labor song is the film’s emotional high point, as well as its spiritual climax. At the end of the Q&A, Schäublin acknowledged the familiar line of Marx’s about religion as “the opium of the people” – “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions” – only to introduce a rejoinder by Simone Weil, who having worked in an actual factory concluded that revolution, or the promise thereof offered by Marxism, is just as much of an opiate. This isn’t to say that the promise of a better world, or at the very least a less exploitative mode of production, isn’t worth fighting and organizing for. Rather, there is a spiritual dimension to collective action that is both its strength and also the point at which it is susceptible to failure and corruption.

    Later that day, the programmers of NYFF cannily scheduled a complementary, yet very different, movie about work. Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu appeared before the gala screening of R.M.N. to briefly introduce his film and explain to the audience that the film’s subtitles had been color-coded to correspond to the various different languages spoken throughout. The movie opens with a prologue where a child leaves his home in a nondescript Transylvanian town and walks to school on a path through the woods, where he sees something upsetting and runs back the way he came (whatever caused this reaction is kept a secret until much later). We jump from here to a factory in Germany, where the boy’s father Matthias (Marin Grigore) is employed slaughtering sheep. While trying to fix his phone on break, a manager yells at him for idling and calls him a gypsy. Incensed, Matthias headbutts him through a door, breaking some glass and possibly a nose; he hightails it out of there and hitchhikes all the way back to Transylvania, where his wife is none too pleased at his return and his son has stopped talking after the traumatic incident in the woods.

    Still from the film RMN. A father aims a gun in the gloomy woods with his young son at his side.


    At a bread factory not far from the town, Csillia (Judith State), who lives in town and shares some history with Matthias, is at the beck and call of her own boss (a runway-ready woman with a whiff of McKinsey manager about her) as the factory applies for grants from the EU. To make the cutoff for aid for medium-sized businesses, the factory needs to hire a few more workers, but no one in town has responded to the employment notices that Csillia has posted all up and down Main Street. To meet the quota, the factory takes on a few migrant workers who have just arrived in Romania from Sri Lanka.

    Mungiu is both an effective visual dramatist and one of cinema’s greatest working creators of morality tales. R.M.N. boasts virtuosic compositions, thrilling sound design, and stands out as one of Mungiu’s most narratively complex achievements. For most of its first hour and a half, the movie accumulates layer upon layer of details that complicate the story. Of particular note is the town’s Hungarian Catholic minority population. Led by a priest who seems sincere in his faith but is nevertheless held hostage to his congregation’s opinions, the Hungarians are outraged that the bread factory has hired darker-skinned foreigners, whom the Hungarians paint as job-stealers and disease vectors. Their civil unrest escalates quickly to violence, prompting the intervention of local law enforcement, who convene a town hall for the townspeople to state their cases for and against the factory’s decision to employ the Sri Lankan men – and Csillia’s decision to put them up in town.

    The assembly lasts for seventeen minutes, which Mungiu films in an astonishing single take with no camera movements. Here nearly every character in the town gets to say his or her piece, and from the dialectical movement of the conversation a terrible picture of everyone’s competing material interests is drawn out. These migrants will take all our jobs; we gave you a chance to take these jobs but you didn’t want them; we don’t want them because your factory has a history of stealing its workers’ wages; why don’t you go work abroad like Matthias?; they call us gypsies and hate us; well we needed the extra hands to apply for a grant from the EU; the EU only gives us money for useless things like parks when what this town needs is its roads repaved; I’m here on detail from the EU and it’s important for the conservation of the area’s biodiversity that I track the bear population; who cares about keeping the bears alive, they keep eating all our sheep; and so on.

    R.M.N. struck me as an especially perceptive movie about the roots of racism. The material causes of the Sri Lankan workers’ migration are out of sight for the Transylvanians, which occludes empathetic understanding of their situation and fuels conspiracy- and bigotry-driven talk among the townspeople. Until the town hall forces a conversation (of sorts), most of the economic motivations of the townspeople are unknown to each other as well. Even though Mungiu’s focus is local – he explained after the film that the starting point for the story was a news item that swept Romanian TV in early 2020 – some global implications are apparent. When Csillia chases after a group of men who have attacked her house, two of them are revealed to be wearing KKK-inspired masks, a reminder that the form of anti-Black racism that festered on American soil from the days of chattel slavery seeped into the global system of capitalism to inform racism everywhere else.

    In his post-show Q&A, Mungiu expressed his intention as an artist to use his films as snapshots to try to better understand what is troubling his society. I only incidentally figured out the meaning of the film’s title when I stumbled upon it in a short review online: R.M.N. is Romanian for MRI. The town priest undergoes an MRI after a fainting episode and the results, while shown to the viewer, are presented ambiguously. Characters refer to the imaging as demonstrating conclusively that the priest somehow isn’t right in the head, but no doctor walks us through the meaning of the scans; interpretation is left to the viewer. Much is left for us to speculate on: what actually is the problem? What caused it? Are there other affected areas in need of studying?

    The priest doesn’t serve as any sort of moral compass in the film, but his arc is the most memorably tragic. At one point Csillia confronts him about the behavior of his parishioners and he chastises her for raising a ruckus when she hasn’t been to church in years. She retorts that she couldn’t stand to go to any church whose members so blatantly violate the Gospel (welcoming the migrant is not spelled out, but obviously on the mind). In predominantly Orthodox Romania, the Hungarian Catholic parish has a history of helping its minority community survive in the face of persecution and economic exploitation. I was reminded of how this exact dynamic plays out with some Orthodox diasporic communities in the United States, and how the tightly monoethnic nature of these parishes, when viewed without the proper historical context, can become a draw for converts attracted to White supremacy.

    Like any MRI scan, R.M.N. has its limitations – the Sri Lankan characters are noticeably less complex than any of the others – but it does offer the viewer a deeper understanding of the elaborate processes underwriting contemporary anxiety and violence, up to and including primordial forces that far predate global capitalism. In her article “Factory Work,” Simone Weil asks, how can we “abolish an evil without first having clearly perceived in what it consisted?” Working in their own unique ways, Mungiu and Schäublin have both made valuable films for helping us perceive the material and spiritual conditions of our lives with the clarity needed to improve them.

    Watch the trailers:



    Contributed By TimMarkatos Tim Markatos

    Tim Markatos is a designer and critic in Washington, DC.

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