Cyril Schäublin is awarded Best Director prize in Berlin’s Encounters for his austere account of Swiss watchmaking
Dir/scr: Cyril Schäublin. Switzerland. 2022. 93 mins
Time is of the essence in a valley in 19th-century Swiss Jura, inhabited solely by farmers and watchmakers. And time is contested – the community operates according to four separate times: the watch factory timetable being a full eight minutes in advance of the municipal one, which is set at the local post office. Cyril Schäublin’s austere picture is loosely inspired by the writing of the Russian political thinker and essayist Pyotr Kropotkin. But the character of Kropotkin (played by Alexei Evstratov) is not the narrative focus of this distinctive and unusual social study of a community embracing the tenets of anarchism. Instead, taking the moving parts of the watch mechanism as a metaphor, the film is more egalitarian – each worker in the factory, like each cog in the pocket watch, has a role which is unshowy but essential. Schäublin’s vision and approach certainly won’t be for everyone: there’s a sense of disengagement which keeps emotional connection with the filmmaking to a minimum in favour of intellectual rigour. But the film, which won Best Director in Berlin’s Encounters, should connect with adventurous audiences at further festivals or through a curated streaming platform.
There is a subtle humour in this singular approach
It is the second feature from Schäublin, following his acclaimed debut Those Who Are Fine, which won Best Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Schäublin, who was himself born into a family of Swiss watchmakers, takes a fastidious interest in the proto production line of a watch factory in the early stages of industrialisation. Extreme close ups on the work stations of each craftsperson shows the delicate handling of fragile components. Josephine (Clara Gostynski), in her unassuming way the closest there is to a central character in the film, is responsible for the unrest wheel, the driving force of the watch mechanism. She is also at the core of a group of workers who espouse the values of the anarchist movement.
Politely polemical statements punctuate the working day, slipped through the brief breaks in the near constant time and motion study which the factory owners have enforced, the better to improve their profit margins. During lunch, Josephne and her colleagues trade photographs of prominent anarchists, with a portrait of August Reinsdorf, an anarchist pioneer who attempted to kill the German Emperor with a bomb, fetching a particularly high asking price.
Schäublin’s approach is one of stripped-back precision. There’s no extraneous score, just one instance of diegetic music. When the camera isn’t scrutinising the inner workings of the watch mechanism, Schäublin favours long takes and mid and wide shots which position the characters and the action at the very periphery of the frame. The abstract shapes of factory buildings dominate, the workers are tiny in comparison. An investment on the part of the audience is required, to focus in on the characters and to follow the dialogue. It’s not quite as dry as it sounds. There is a subtle humour in this singular approach, but like the dialogue and the drama (such that it is), it is sidelined.
Production company: Seeland Filmproduktion
International sales: Alpha Violet firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Linda Vogel, Michela Pini
Cinematography: Silvan Hillmann
Editing: Cyril Schäublin
Production design: Sara B. Weingart
Music: Li Tavor
Main cast: Clara Gostynski, Alexei Evstratov, Monika Stalder, Hélio Thiémard, Li Tavor, Valentin Merz, Laurence Bretignier, Laurent Ferrero, Mayo Irion, Daniel Stähli