Cyril SchäublinAbout Time: Interview with Cyril Schäublin Hamed Sarrafi January 2023 Interviews Issue 104 In his latest film, Unrest (2022), Swiss director Cyril Schäublin has created something new and unique. Together with his feature debut, Those Who Are Fine (2017), he has developed his own aesthetic style and not simply followed current trends. In Unrest, Schäublin examines anarchism, capitalism, and social movements by picking a very specific moment in history and adding a mix of his own feelings and personal background. In doing so, he has fictionalised a famous historical figure, Pyotr Kropotkin, who was not only a Russian anarchist, socialist, revolutionary, historian, scientist, and philosopher, but also a writer, traveller, and cartographer. Yet Schäublin deliberately treats him just like any other ordinary person and allows us to observe the socio-political events of this particular period through his eyes. Schäublin effectively turns Kropotkin into a MacGuffin, much like other recent movies such as Corsage (Marie Kreutzer, 2022), Peterloo (Mike Leigh, 2018), Saul fia (Son of Saul, László Nemes, 2015) and Îmi Este indiferent Daca în istorie vom intra ca barbari (I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Radu Jude, 2018) which similarly utilise historical figures and events to tell us something about our own present. Both Unrest and Those Who Are Fine show that Schäublin is an observant director who prefers to narrate his ideas through routine daily life, akin to a ‘docufiction’. Those Who Are Fine tells the story of a scam in which young people deceive the elderly by pretending to be their friends or family in order to steal their money. That film, which won Best International Feature Film at Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018, is about a crime, whereas Unrest is superficially a period drama. Although both have dramatic elements and could so easily have followed genre clichés, Schäublin is content to capture ordinary dialogue through the characters’ daily routine and even dead moments in a day, with no particular emphasis on the dramatic parts of each story. This approach, in addition to placing characters in long-shot frames of nature, buildings or streets, allows events to unfold quietly, which somehow makes their context seem even more important than the characters themselves. Unrest has been selected for several film festivals and has already won the ‘Tiantian Award for Best Artistic Contribution’ and ‘Best Cinematography’ at the Beijing International Film Festival, and ‘Best Director’ at the Encounters section of the Berlin International Film Festival. He is one of Swiss’ contemporary auteurs, alongside Andreas Fontana AZOR (2021) and Michael Koch (Drii Winter, A Piece of Sky, 2022). In our wide-ranging interview, Schäublin opens up about this process, his somewhat unorthodox yet collaborative approach, his direct connection to the characters and their work, and his aim to overturn long-held preconceptions about Switzerland and the Swiss character. We drill down into his methods and motivation, focusing on his singular approach to filmmaking, such as his use of non-actors and framing. – HS Unrest I have been always fascinated with the intellect and cleverness of filmmakers in choosing the subject of their movies and the way they go about telling and depicting that story. For me Unrest is an interesting mix as the story is set in a watch factory, about a Russian anarchist, living in 19th century Switzerland! I have to confess that I didn’t know much about Kropotkin before this and I had to look him up, so I’m curious to know how you came to choose him as the subject for your film. Well, it’s a subject that’s personal and relevant to me personally because I come from a family of watchmakers going back several generations. My great grandmother, my grandmother, my great aunts and other women in my family all worked in a watch factory making this small piece which, in Swiss German, is called the “unrest” which is ironic because in English it is called the “balance wheel”. I lived outside Switzerland for more than 10 years and, as I moved around from one place to another, I got to see how most people view Switzerland in all the usual clichés…. chocolate, watches, banks, etc….and as Truffaut and Hitchcock pointed out in their famous discourse, it’s always better to start with a cliché than to end with one. So, I thought a watch factory would make an interesting setting and subject matter, not to mention the argument that the ability to measure time and time keeping helped give rise to the industrial revolution. I also sometimes like to work with my brother who works as an anthropologist. And as we began discussing the film early on, the subject of anarchism came up and he started telling me about the anarchist movement in the Swiss watchmaking industry of the 19th century. And as soon as you start reading about anarchists living in 19th century Switzerland, Pyotr Kropotkin’s name inevitably comes up very quickly, alongside Bakunin and others. I understand that as part of your research you read a number of books to complement your own thoughts and ideas: Anarchist Watchmakers in Switzerland by Florian Eitel, and La condition ouvriére by Simone Weil. Yes, I found Simone Weil’s book very interesting. And Eitel’s book was also very important because he is a historian who is an expert in this field. All the way through the film, I had in my mind the caption card at the start of the film which read that Kropotkin essentially discovered anarchism, of all places, while living in Switzerland. What I find fascinating about the film is the inherent irony at its heart: that anarchism is the rejection of authority, not following rules or any rules that seek to impose limitations on you. And yet working in a watchmaking factory is the very antithesis of this way of thinking: it is chaos versus precision in a place where making something as delicate as a watch requires the employees to follow very exact prescribed rules otherwise the end product simply won’t work. Yes, it’s quite funny because although some people today would naturally make a leap between this Swiss film and the modern cliché of Swiss watch-making, anarchism is probably the last thing anybody would possibly associate with what is now supposed to be a politically “neutral” country. And yet this scenario is not fictional. This watchmaking valley of Saint-Imier existed and it really was the centre of the international anarchist movement at that time, the place where the first international anarchist congresses took place. At its origins, anarchism was essentially a disconnection from the communist ideology which sought to remove authoritarian and centralist structures from socialism. I think anarchism in the 1870s, 1880s wasn’t so much against rules and order as it was about trying to create new rules and a new order. I’d say that in this aspect, they adopted a human approach towards a possible transformation of things. And you see an example of this in the film – even if briefly – the fact that if you were an unmarried woman at that time, you were denied official health insurance from the factory, and this injustice was only fixed when, for the first time, anarchist cooperatives started providing health insurance to these women. I think it is also important to note that the 1850s, ‘60s, and ‘70s marked the beginning of the nationalist states in Europe where the political atmosphere was already very heated, and which ultimately led to the First World War a few decades later. And what’s interesting about the anarchist movement of that time is how they were trying to get rid of those nationalist concepts and identities and say that a place or a country is not about arbitrary lines drawn on a map but is about its people and how they cohabit those places. And in trying to implement this approach into societies, they needed to coordinate their efforts when it came to things like time, labour, money, in order to use these elements to organise themselves and control the printing machines that distribute books and newspapers, if they were to fully mobilise this new movement. Unrest Yes, I agree. And as I was watching the film, it occurred to me that these people were very much ahead of their time: they believed in equal wages for women, support for workers, health insurance as you’ve mentioned and other ideas like that, but it’s a story that I didn’t know much about… …Well, don’t feel too bad, you’re not the only one. Most people in Switzerland don’t even know about the anarchist history of their country. I feel I should have asked you this earlier, but could you tell me something about your background. How did you start in filmmaking, what type of movies do you like and what sort of movies were you interested in when you were younger? To be honest, when I was young, I mostly liked to draw but, my father came home one day with one of those mini DV cameras that were around in the ‘90s which was given to him by one his clients as a gift, and immediately I started using it when I was about 11 years old and I never stopped. I knew then that I wanted to make films so I ended up going to film school in Berlin and also in Beijing. And yes, I like watching many films, some new films, but mostly films from the ‘20s and ‘30s. But I also like paintings and I still find myself going back to books as I read a lot of poetry but, above all, I spend much of my time with my friends and family. In fact, the people in my films are almost always my friends, never actors. When you are saying you like watching movies from ‘20s and ‘30s, it sounds like you like the origins of the cinema? There is an interview with Fritz Lang, which is really rare to find, I think it only exists in German on YouTube it’s not even translated. In this interview that is recorded in the ‘60s he said something interesting. He said that he feels so sorry for young filmmakers in the 1960s, that they have to choose something like a genre when making a film. He emphasised when he was young, in the 1910s and 1920s, you were incredibly free to do what you wanted, even producers were much more courageous to experiment with new forms and ways of narration. There existed no genres in that sense yet. And sometimes for me it’s important to not forget this, that cinema is still so young and shapeable. Even if we talk about so called genres these days. The other thing I noticed with both your films is that you tell us so much about various aspects of life in Switzerland and those clichéd perceptions that you mentioned earlier. For example, in Unrest, we not only see the country’s watch-making heritage obviously, but we also see the part of Switzerland’s history that deals with anarchy which is at odds with its current position as a peaceful neutral country. And in Those Who Are Fine, you deal with more modern every-day topics like money, banking, and poor internet connections etc. Is there a theme here, perhaps a trilogy – the past, the present – so I wonder if there is going to be a third film coming soon… …Yes. Taking place in the future. …So am I right in suggesting that you are consciously trying to give the audience an insight into how you view your country and your own perceptions of Switzerland? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I was 20 when I left Switzerland, and I returned when I was about 31. But I always knew that I wanted to make my first film here, the place where I grew up, a place that’s very close to me, to the language I know – Swiss German – which is different from standard German. I wondered what I could find in the place where I grew up – Zurich – to fictionalise or dramatise. But then I realised there is plenty of material around me already that people discuss daily. Take the speed and costs of internet for example. It’s one of those universal subjects that people discuss everywhere, all the time. Whether you are sitting in a café or a restaurant or a train in Switzerland, or in Iran for that matter, you will always hear people talking about the speed and quality of their internet connection, as well as talking about money and generally trying to manage and make sense of their lives. This might sound random and arbitrary. But actually, this is just what real people do in their lives every day, call their banks, speak to call centres, worry about their internet connections and so on. There is something like a capitalist mythology, and I think in Switzerland this mythology is maybe performed in a hardcore way, because there is so much capital floating in this place, displacing industries and forms of cohabitation and mutual aid. Unrest Something else I’ve noticed about your films is how you often tend to focus on certain elements in some detail. In Unrest, for instance, we see lots of close-up shots of people working on tiny intricate parts of a watch and, similarly, details of the cartography process. And in Those Who Are Fine, where the elderly lady is withdrawing cash at the bank, we’re taken through the whole lengthy security process in fine detail. The same with the telemarketers in the way you capture their sales methods in quite a lot of detail which I found interesting. Is that a deliberate decision to use detail as a tool by which to convey realism in your films? It depends on what you mean by ‘realism’? What is realism? I think of it more as what happens on the margins of life, the line between what people think is or is not important. And perhaps what you and I think is unimportant is actually quite important to most people. This is what I was trying to say earlier about not having to look for fictional material. What some people may consider as mundane, such as talking to a cashier at your bank, is actually quite important in our day-to-day lives. Life, with all its beauty and terror, is always happening, even in the strangest places, such as a call centre agent’s desk somewhere in the suburbs of a town in Switzerland, and people do this every day, even though some may think of it as existing only on the margins of life. Speaking of capitalism, it seems to me that money is also a subject of interest for you. In your first film, you deal with fraud and criminality, and I wasn’t quite sure whether it was based on real events or not. But apart from the running issue of poor internet, it was primarily about people who feel they don’t earn enough money and somehow have to turn to crime. And in your second film, you again deal with the subject of money…people exchanging photographs for money, exchanging watches for money, and the desire to produce more products to sell as quickly as possible which is predicated on the commonly held notion that ‘time is money’. I mean who doesn’t need money these days? Right now, we can’t operate and cooperate without it. I think there’s a very small possibility of poetry to be found in seeing how money has become so important that it’s everywhere and it’s in everything. The events in my first film are real. That sort of thing happens all the time in Switzerland where millions of francs are lost every month to fraud, when elderly people give their money to people pretending to be their family, mostly their grandchildren, that’s why it’s called the “grandchild-fraud” in Switzerland. When my first film was out in Swiss cinemas, this kind old man came to me after one screening and said he knows why old people keep giving money to these fraudsters. He said it is because “they feel that somebody cares about them, they do it for the human interaction, like the old lady in your film who is prepared to give 50,000 francs to have that feeling and contact with someone else, even if it’s just for a brief moment”, and I find that incredible. That in such a small country which is so wealthy and is considered by some as the pinnacle of capitalism, isolation is a real problem and not even money can solve this problem, actually it intensifies this situation. Of course, this brings up the question if we need to fundamentally reorganise the concepts of caring and remuneration. The organisation of money, time, work and care seems terribly out of order – especially because their division and order in Switzerland seems so meticulous, concrete and disciplined. Unrest I think there is also an aspect of your film that is quite analogous to anarchism, in how you choose to depict your story. In an over-simplistic way, anarchism is about decentralising power and authority. And in the case of Unrest, your characters are quite literally decentralised, both as subject matter and also visually which I’ll come on to later. As subject matters, the story is broadly based around Kropotkin and yet he is practically missing from most scenes – he is not the main character. Sure, he appears briefly in a few scenes, and the film ends with him, but he exists mostly on the margins. And even in your first film where we are presented with several characters, there is no discernible ‘lead’ role, with each character representing just a fragment of society: the fraudsters, the criminals, the victims, the police, the bankers, etc. That’s an interesting observation. I think that 19th century anarchists like Kropotkin would find it quite objectionable that future generations could somehow view these historical characters in such prominent light, because from an anarchist perspective in the 19th century it is obviously questionable why we today are so focused and somehow “centralised” on a few names from that movement. There could be other, decentralised, maybe anarchist organisations of information dealing with the past and its people. My favourite book by Kropotkin is Mutual Aid in which he postulates the notion that living systems derive the maximum mutual benefit when they work together rather than against each other, whether that’s between humans, plants, or animals, a concept not too dissimilar to Darwin’s theory of cooperation in evolution. I only mention that because for the role of Kropotkin, I was simply hoping to find a Russian who could speak French. But the person who you see in the film has never acted before but adores Kropotkin’s work. It just so just happens that, just like Kropotkin, he is actually a Russian who grew up in Russia, now lives in Switzerland, and is a scientist himself, just as Kropotkin was. At some point during shooting, he said he realised that Kropotkin didn’t have a major role in the film. But when we’d finished filming, he told me that he was struck by how the whole film-making process is based on collaboration and cooperation between so many people, which was interesting to hear from someone who is familiar with Kropotkin’s works, and is an accurate reflection of his character’s views about the benefits of mutual aid and lack of desire for recognition. And this concept of decentralisation also seems to be a feature of your shooting style. I watched your first film Those Who Are Fine with my wife. And as we were watching, we wondered whether there was something wrong with our monitor’s ratio settings, or if perhaps we’d been sent the wrong version of the film because is so many scenes, the characters appeared literally around the edge of those scenes. Until I realised that you had framed these shots deliberately and you were choosing to place the character around the edge and fill the rest of the frame with a building or landscape and, in other scenes, you’d given the actors a disproportionate amount of headroom in the frame. In another scene, you break the rules again by placing a tree right in the middle of your shot. Tell me more about this and why you decided to use this particular style of framing in certain parts of both your films. In a sense, I like to treat places and locations the way we would listen to a person. There is an intelligence to be found in walls, trees or streets. My cinematographer Silvan Hillmann and I would spend months to visit those sites where we would be going to film, and maybe let us kind of “deconstruct” by those places, and forget about our assumptions and ideas how those places could look like. To try to find a way to let those places talk and find their way into the image we would create for them, to invite them to somehow speak in the film, before they will be populated by the characters of the film. In a way, we had to allow ourselves to be guided by the setting, to have a ‘dialogue’ with the location, so to speak. Unrest At the start of Unrest, we see three female characters with umbrellas waiting to be photographed in a setting that is reminiscent of an impressionist painting, like a Renoir maybe. And the other scene which I mentioned earlier where you’ve placed a large tree right in the middle of your frame is somewhat similar to a painting by the anarchist artist Camille Pissarro. Did you use paintings as visual references in deciding how you were going to frame and shoot certain scenes? I would like to say yes, but I am not sure we did that consciously. As you know I like to look at paintings, and I also appreciate the works of the Swiss artist Franz Gertsch or the Chinese painter Luo Ping amongst others, so it’s possible that I had some paintings in the back of my mind when we were shooting which may have subconsciously inspired our framing decisions, but I’m not sure if that was a deliberate decision. Apple Harvest, Camille Pissarro While we’re on the subject of framing, and as you mentioned earlier that you travelled with your cinematographer to choose locations, how much time did you spend discussing how to frame each scene with your director of photography, Silvan Hillmann? We had a small camera crew and the preparations were long but, as I said before, we approached it almost as a dialogue with our locations through which the setting would pretty much dictate how we chose our frame which made our job simpler in some ways. For one of my first short films, which was set in Berlin, I actually went and spent the night there to familiarise myself with the setting. Since we’ve been talking about how you frame certain shots, another element that features quite prominently in Unrest is photography, and how in certain scenes, we see characters being stopped from walking around freely because they’d be walking into the photographer’s shot. Was photography really that prevalent at the time, or was is it something you made up as a means of creating a point of interest? No, it was actually around that time that photography was becoming cheaper, commercialised and more widely accessible so it was everywhere. Portraits were popular, and photographers quickly cashed in by taking lots of portraits which people would buy and trade. Not just portraits, but also photos of villages and factories. And I think, in a way, back then photographers were using their work to depict what they perceived to be an objective reality. They could take a picture of a village to show everyone and proclaim it as their village. And pretty much the same happens today. People selectively upload endless photos of themselves to the internet and create their own version of so-called reality. And leading on from that, towards the end of the film, we see a photographer who was normally selling portraits for 20 or 30 centimes throughout the film, suddenly raise his price to 1 franc when he realises that demand for his photos of Josephine and Kropotkin had grown because they were dead by then. So, I am wondering whether that was slight dig at the media, either through irony or metaphor, by suggesting that maybe the media sometimes try to profit from certain events, which reflects today’s capitalistic society. And on another point, given that Kropotkin was well travelled, do you maybe also see a bit of yourself in him because I understand you’ve travelled quite a bit yourself… China, Berlin, Paris, Argentina. I don’t know, maybe I do. But as to your other point, the reason he increases the price of those two particular portraits is because at the end of the film we see Josephine and Kropotkin hang the watch on the tree and disappear into the forest. When the photographer realises that his customers recognise the two characters in the portraits and are discussing them as part of a larger love story, he decides that his work is intrinsically more valuable as a love story than just a standard portrait, so he raises his price on the spot. As the French poet Arthur Rimbaud once wrote, “Love must be reinvented”. What we don’t see is what happens between Josephine and Kropotkin after they walk into the forest so, as the viewing audience, we are left free to ascribe any suitably meaningful outcome to this act that we like. I also want to ask you about your decentralised approach when it comes to sound in your films. In a number of scenes, we have to watch very closely because in some of your wide shots it’s difficult to tell who is actually speaking as there are often several people in those scenes. And it’s also notable that you don’t use any music in your films. Is that another deliberate choice? Well, I do like music, and I have tried to incorporate music into my films before, but I haven’t found an effective way of making it work for me. At least not yet – maybe in the future. And what was your approach to directing the ‘actors’, although you’ve already told us that they’re all your friends and not professional actors, so how did you deal with that and how much time did you have to spend coaching them? It depends. For the new film, there were a lot of rehearsals. They had the script at hand in case it was needed but we just carried on as normal and there wasn’t any pressure on them. I would observe how they perform in each scene and give them direction as or when it was needed, and we just went along like that. For example, the man who plays the director of the factory, who was also the town mayor, is a good friend of mine and is actually a film director himself. To help him with his role, I just told him to talk to others on set the way he would direct actors in his own films. And it also helped that some of the people in the film are actually watch-makers in real life, so little to no direction was needed there. Based on your two films so far, would I be right in saying that you are perhaps trying to establish your own film style, a language that is specifically yours, whether it’s your approach to storytelling or framing or lack of music? Are you trying to create a style that is identifiably yours? I don’t think so, it’s not something that I try to think about at all. My aim is to take whatever feelings, observations, or ideas I have when I interact with people around me, and bring them all into a film in the best way that I can. What I really like about making films is that it’s a collaborative process and the way it brings people together.