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How to people a landscape
Christy Wampole
19 April 2023
published in Issue Three
Cyril Schäublin, dir.


On cinema & scale

I watched the movie three times, in three theaters, at three different distances from the screen. The first viewing, at FSK-Kino near Oranienplatz in Berlin, cost €9 and took place in a packed theater. Sitting in the front row — no other seats were left — the picture was overwhelming and could only be taken in pieces. At that neck-twisting angle, the film’s proportions were too formidable, its figures too looming. I was made small by them. A second viewing, at Delphi Lux Kino near Bahnhof Zoo, which cost €12 and allowed me to sit in the middle row of a small, mostly empty theater, proved the most human-scale distance at which to watch. Only the picture was in view, and it was just the right size. The characters felt the same size as me. The final viewing at ACUD Kino, around the corner from Rosenthaler Platz, cost me €8. As part of what I realized had become an experiment — to watch a film from three different angles and see what knowledge these different viewings could produce — I sat in the last row. This choice brought with it distractions: cellphone screens, whispering silhouettes who consumed beverages and dropped things. These people, as visual noise, became a part of the film. Their optical commotion competed with the film’s action and made me feel far away, a detached observer who was denied the chance of a pleasant immersion.

Stills from « Unrueh »

The movie was Cyril Schäublin’s Unrueh (2022). It is ostensibly about the outsize influence that a group of clockmakers in a small Swiss village had on the burgeoning anarchism of a real historical figure, the Russian radical Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921). His anarcho-communist activities were grounds for a forty-one-year exile starting in 1874, which gave him the chance to study firsthand how the Swiss, French, and English anarchists organized life and action. On its surface, the movie is about modernity, time, power, technology, money, memory, and capital (those who have it and those who generate but do not possess it). The movie is about all of those things, but as I tried it out at different scales and for different prices in theaters spread across the map of Berlin, I confirmed the early intuition I’d had about its secret theme. With each carefully composed shot, alternating between the extremely close and the extremely far, making the small large and the large small, the secret theme became clear: scale.

The medium of film — watched in a theater on a big screen or elsewhere on a cell phone, TV, tablet, or computer screen — always invites consideration of the problem of scale. What is the ideal aspect ratio? Landscape format (like most cinema) or portrait format (like TikTok videos)? How close or far should the camera be from its objects, and how much should the apparatus create the illusion of proximity or distance through zooming in or out? How big or small should objects appear on the screen? A closeup shows more of an actor’s face but less of everything else. A wide shot offers more world but less detail about it. Closeness or remoteness, largeness or smallness. More than most directors, Cyril Schäublin relies on scale to convey meaning.

The movie portrays only Kropotkin’s arrival in Switzerland, not the arc of his life, but this focus makes for a drama of two competing theories about how life should be organized: as a nationalist project or as an anarchist one. Kropotkin is a cartographer, and his desire to make a new, more precise map of the valley surrounding the Saint-Imier municipality in the Jura Mountains is partly what motivates his visit and thus the action of the entire film. His other motivation is that just a few years earlier, workers there had formed the Jura Federation, a faction of the First International built around Mikhail Bakunin’s philosophy of revolutionary anarchism. Kropotkin travels to Saint-Imier to make a map of this hub of anarchist action. Maps — smaller-scale representations of larger spaces — figure conspicuously in the film and invite viewers to contemplate their power as reality-shaping instruments. The cartographic imaginary of nationalists differs from that of anarchists. In an early scene, a character explains the key differences. She says that anarchism

is like communism but without a government. Yes, they want to build a federation and to decentralize power, creating local forms of self-government without the concept of a nation, without any central source of power, unlike Marx and Engels who wish to establish a centralized form of power after the revolution. Maybe it’s also a question of territory. We imagine territory as the area of a state or a nation. But for anarchists, it’s just a place that we live in together at any moment.

Nationalists use maps to parcel out territory, to name it and thus own it, to harden its borders and codify what is contained within them with rules and norms. In contrast, the anarchism encountered in the film is borderless; factory workers across the world circulate their wages to support a strike on one continent or a radical newspaper on another. Under the banner of l’Internationale, the worker has no homeland. In one haunting scene, workers sing « L’ouvrier n’a pas de patrie » (« The worker has no homeland »), the dissonant hymn composed by the French militant Charles Keller (1843-1913). When a barkeeper sympathetic to the workers’ efforts wants to hang Kropotkin’s new, more precise map up in his bar, some of the nationalist patrons object: After all, how can one trust a map made by an anarchist, who by default is incapable of conceptualizing space correctly? Kropotkin explains to a comrade that, « An anarchist map reflects the perspective of the local population … Science must systematically reflect the ideas of the people instead of imposing external ideas onto them. » His map will make the names and places now known only to the locals familiar to comrades across the globe. He seeks to map with beautiful precision this site where the revolution will have begun.

Plan américain

On screens, largeness signifies mattering and intimacy, while smallness connotes insignificance and remoteness. Schäublin’s macro images (that is, images that make small things enormous) of a clock being assembled or money changing hands urge one to think about this pattern, as do his telephoto shots (which bring faraway things close using long focal lengths) of humans dwarfed by the immensity of nature or architecture. His image compositions (created with his cinematographer Silvan Hillmann), especially the establishing shots, constantly call upon the viewer to think about humans in relation to the spaces they occupy, the territories they invent, and the technologies they dream up to deal with the vastness of space. His framings are often unusual. He cuts the actors off at their thighs or waists, which is not in itself unusual. The French call that particular framing, often seen in Westerns, the plan américain — the « American shot » or « cowboy shot » in English: A figure or group of figures dominate the frame but are cut off just below their gun holsters so the weapons can be seen. Schäublin’s framing, though, cuts the characters this way but films them from afar. His small, kneeless figures tend to cluster at the very bottom of the screen, often in groups, the background filled by tree-covered mountains or buildings that overwhelm the people in the foreground. Often, no ground is visible at all; the fundament is missing.

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All stills courtesy of Seeland Filmproduktion

A painter of peopled landscapes would probably not paint them this way. The reference for Schäublin, then, is not landscape painting but rather a common cinematic language (the plan américain) made weird through a change in scale. In one scene, several characters are standing outside, testing a telegraph machine. They are tiny, tucked in the bottom left corner of the frame, the sunshine outlining their diminutive forms in white. The immensity of the forested slopes behind them cannot be overstated; the landscape is vast and webbed with evidence of humans trying to conquer the vastness with technology. Telegraph wires stretch across the image, seeming too fragile to portend the communication explosion on the horizon of the next century. Trains, too, have an important role in the film, and the goal of these forms of communication and transportation is to reduce the world’s scale, to make its proportions more fruitful to human enterprise. In another scene, the cluster of mid-sized figures occupying the middle of the screen is interrupted suddenly by workers leaving the factory (as they’ve left many of cinema’s factories before), as small, distant figures pour out behind the cluster and enormous bodies closer to the camera interrupt the entire shot intermittently. This tripartite division uses space to surprise and to add dimension and dynamism to a somewhat flat picture plane.

Space is important in the movie, but time is its more obvious theme. The title Unrueh refers to the part of the clock called the balance spring (balancier in French) and contains the whisper of another word in it, the German Unruhe, or « unrest ». While Kropotkin the mapmaker is a human embodiment of space, the other protagonist, a clockmaker, embodies time. Mapmaker and clockmaker, time and space might thus be used artfully in service of the coming revolution. Joséphine Gräbli, the fictional figure whose story intertwines with Kropotkin’s at the film’s beginning and its end, is a régleuse in the local clock factory; her job is to sync the clock’s inner rhythms so the instrument can accurately keep time. We follow her and her fellow clockmakers through their days, on and off the clock. The precise work, often shown in astounding macro shots that highlight the artistry and delicateness of the timepieces they produce, exhausts their eyes and necks during the customary twelvehour shifts. A closeup shot of Joséphine wearing an eyeglass as she works switches to a macro shot of the clock’s delicate mechanism; we are her for a moment, seeing what she is seeing through the magnifying lens. The workers talk about how to organize, get insurance, fool the manager (who times their assembly of the time pieces to make sure they are sufficiently productive) by purposely working more slowly. There are several closeup shots of money changing hands: Workers are paid in coins (heavy but of relatively little worth) while the capitalists trade in bills (light but valuable).

Louise Michel, Kropotkin & Bakunin

The workers dream of social experiments abroad, like the Paris Commune (18 March to 28 May, 1871), during which, for just a short while, women and men were paid equally, before its leaders were executed and dumped in mass graves at Père-Lachaise. The women workers model themselves after figures like Louise Michel (1830-1905), the French anarchist and feminist who fought alongside the other Communards and was deported to New Caledonia after the Commune’s failure. One character, eyes empty and sad, tells her comrades that the Commune only lasted three months (in fact it was only two months and ten days) which, in political time, is barely a clock’s tick. The factory workers can only hope a season of revolution will return and they will be a part of it this time.

In the film (as in life), time is a commodity. Since time lost is money lost, the industrialists seek to increase the scale of production even as they try to reduce the time in which the units are produced. The factory director, the fictional Roulet, has plans to intensify production at his relatively small-scale operation, seeking to secure a military contract that would make him the supplier of the Italian army’s clocks and watches. While the workers’ movement in the film is by default international — laborers across the world are united by the common experiences of exploitation, fatigue, and powerlessness — it is nonetheless small in scale. In contrast to industry’s constant hunger for expansion, the globally connected workers think locally, privileging self-governance and the needs and wants of the community.

Scale: Its many meanings and etymologies might surprise.

Scale: Its many meanings and etymologies might surprise. There are the scales of justice (the scale there is a « bowl »); or the scales that have fallen from my eyes (here, it means husk, shell, or skin). Then there are the scales that interest us here: pay scales, time scales, spatial scales. The etymology here is ladder (scala in Latin). With each rung of an imaginary ladder being assigned a value or magnitude, scalar thinking requires that these rungs be imagined in relation to one another. The film contains a remarkable number of ladders, used mainly for one purpose: synchronizing the many clocks throughout the city. Time and again, officials — usually uniformed policemen — scale various ladders to adjust the hour and get the world back in sync. If this movie shows anything, it is that things taken for granted now — time, money, maps, institutions — are all constructions, painstakingly crafted over centuries. It is easy to forget the amount of time which something like the division of the day into units took to be agreed upon. And while the movie shows sudden jolts of activity in the construction of this or that concept or institution, its overall development loiters over long stretches of time.

In this little Swiss village, various institutions have their own time: There is the time of the municipality, the time of the church, the time of the factory, international time, cantonal time. When a broken telegraph makes it impossible to sync time from village to village, the arch capitalist Roulet casually suggests that as a temporary solution, the time at his factory be adopted as the general time, a subtle new way for industry to shape reality. The rest of society, his offer hints, should adjust to the temporal reality established by commercial enterprise. Schäublin insinuates that the scale at which the world now operates is indeed the scale of industry: Its pay scales, time scales, and spatial scales, adopted gradually, are such a part of daily life, they’ve begun to feel as though they were bestowed to us by nature.

The nationalists strategize; the anarchists strategize. The nationalists protect their interests; the anarchists theirs. The nationalists try to raise money for the fatherland by taking donations for a raffle (guns are the prize); they sing the national anthem; they plan a reenactment of the Battle of Morat (1476), during which the Burgundians were crushed by the Swiss. Meanwhile, the workers also collect raffle money (the prize is a voucher to be photographed); they sing a workers’ hymn; they plan a reenactment of the Commune. These parallel tracks provide the film’s symmetry. But they make the ideological differences more salient. We see that the nationalist myth of the fatherland is one of grandeur. It relies on events and heroes of great scale in history books, or on memorialized figures like the Unknown Soldier, a common man elevated to greatness through his laudable sacrifice to the nation. In contrast, the anarchist mythology relies on a veneration of the lower social rungs and distributes glory to all both life and death. During the anarchists’ festivities, the camera moves from face to face, dwelling a bit on the humble workers whose names are erased from history but who mattered to comrades. The worker’s smallness, now large on the screen, is her power. The nationalist hymn respects music’s rules; the workers’ hymn is dissonant. The nationalists’ myth is old: they reenact a four-hundred-year-old battle. The workers’ myth is young: they restage the Commune, which rose and fell only six years earlier.

The film’s theatrical stagings — of an old battle and the Commune — are miniaturizations of events whose proportions were far more vast. In « Toys », Roland Barthes’ essay from Mythologies (1957), he claims that toys in France (and, I would say, not only in France) present a miniature version of the adult world that will « prepare the child to accept » all « adult functions » « before he can even think about it. » I wondered if the stagings in the film had precisely this function, allowing the citizens or comrades to play-act their roles and prepare for future political action in the real world. In his book Realist Vision (2005), Peter Brooks describes a similar function of miniaturization: « The pleasure that human beings take in scale models of the real — dollhouses, ships in bottles, lead soldiers, model railroads — must have something to do with the sense these provide of being able to play with and therefore master the real world. » The film’s parallel communities have remade the past in miniature in order to gain a sense of control over it, to remove contingencies and vicissitudes through repetition, and to gain confidence and civic practice by simulation. Historical cosplay allows a person, in all his smallness, to dream of greatness. If he cannot master his destiny, he can at least master a modest choreography, and make believe he’s understood history and its lessons.

Much of the film’s power comes from its asymmetries; not just from the asymmetry of power between the two camps, but from visual, aural, spatial, and temporal asymmetries throughout. In many shots, the people are far away yet their voices are close, whispering to the viewer like ASMR videographers. A group of figures stands in the distance, their features barely discernible, and yet their delicious murmurs in Russian, French, and Swiss-German can almost be felt at our necks, creating a strange intimacy with people so far away from our here and now. The news of things of great consequence — an arrest, a revocation of voting rights, a docking of pay — is delivered by authority figures with a conversational lightness, as though discussing the day’s weather. Toward the end of the film, the co-protagonists, finally alone together in the immensity of the Jura’s forests, tell each other about their respective vocations. Joséphine asks the cartographer Kropotkin what Russia is like; his description of such an epic space is beyond understatement: « It’s like here but vast. » In contrast, Joséphine takes her time explaining in intricate detail the inner workings of the clock and how she assembles it. It is the film’s longest monologue, spending so many words and so much time on the smallest of mechanisms.

The most powerful asymmetry is that a film about revolution could be so slow, quiet, and absent of action. The word revolution summons to mind a pyrotechnic imaginary of explosions, fiery rage, and incendiary speech. While there is fire — the flash of a camera, the lighting of cigarettes, the forge fires needed to manufacture clock parts — it is not used in service of radical action. There are no barricades or exchanges of gunfire. There are whispers and small acts of resistance: refusing to pay taxes, writing in an idea on voting ballots — « the Commune » — instead of a candidate’s name. These acts are shut down by the nation’s power brokers with a matter-of-factness that seems gentle. Police officers and factory managers do the enforcing in a serene voice, with the self-assurance of those who have the force of the institution behind them.

One minor figure haunts the film’s subconscious from beginning to end: the photographer. In an early scene, he is hired by the municipality to make promotional photographs of the factory’s wares just as an economic crisis has set in, but he appears throughout the film. He travels from place to place, photographing the famous or not yet famous, betting on an increase in the picture’s value in an era when photographs were traded, bought, and sold like baseball cards. Whose image has value? The dead, the popular, the controversial: The market for photographs in Unrueh is thriving but fickle. The photographer shows special interest in the Russian anarchists he meets, knowing that they soon might become people’s heroes in death, thus raising the value of their images. The risk of belonging to the anarchist movement likewise increases throughout the film, as they’re slowly jailed, dismissed from the factory, not allowed to vote, banned from the bar, or socially ostracized. If the Commune was any measure, then death seems the next likely outcome. « Intéressant, intéressant, » the photographer keeps repeating as they tell about themselves, a word that in French can mean interesting but also lucrative.

The photograph is the film’s primary metaphor for history. As the photographer takes photos for the clock factory’s catalogue, a police officer shouts at Joséphine and Kropotkin as they enter the frame: « Sortez de l’image » (« Get out of the picture »). The same cop says to a group of anarchists with their red flag, « We are taking photographs of our town, and you are in the middle of the frame. So I would like to ask you to move somewhere else. » It’s a gleefully self-referential cinematic move for characters to be told to leave the image. The workers are omitted from the visual record of the State and thus from history. Paradoxically, the only person who can save their legacy is the street photographer, who will traffic their images for cash. The film asks: Whose life will have mattered? How large will the scale of one’s actions and deeds have been in relation to the world’s history?

The closing scene of the film invites a contemplation of photographic aperture. When a camera’s focal ratio is low (f/1.4), then its aperture lets light flood in, creating a narrow depth of field. One small part of the image will be very sharp and everything else blurry. In comparison, when the focal ratio is high (f/22), the aperture lets in very little light, creating a large depth of field. This means the sharpness of all objects in the image is more uniform, with everything being equally crisp. There is great potential for cinema and photography to use depth of field in a metaphorical way, and Schäublin takes full advantage. Depth of field can single out an object, letting sharpness amount to significance. Or it can make everything within the frame evenly significant, erasing difference and distinction. It can use sharpness to mean what is remembered, what affects us, what merits attention; and blurriness to mean what is forgotten, what lacks meaning or duration, in short, what is threatened by time. Schäublin’s final scene pans away from the sharp image of a pocket watch that Joséphine and Kropotkin have left hanging on a tree branch (filmed just as it stops ticking) into the blur of forest in the background, but the lens does not readjust to capture in detail the richness of the woods. We are left with a soft symphony of birdsong in our ears and the faint suggestion of trunks and foliage so blurred before our eyes, that they can barely be read as a forest. The sharply regulated world of the clock — a signifier of order, modernity, progress, inexorability — is abandoned for the soft natural world, with no beginnings or endings, no teleology, vague and free and improvisational. Nature works at its own pace, and its dimensions in relation to humanity are colossal. Revolutions past and present are mere blips. And because nature’s scale of time and place is quite alien to our own, it is destined to remain blurry and indecipherable to human consciousness.

Watching Unrueh from various distances, I noticed things kept changing: the proportions of people, objects, buildings, and nature, their relative blurriness or sharpness, the proximity or distance of sound. With each viewing, I, too, was resized by the film. If it could have looked back at me, I would have been up in its face at first, then the distance of a hello, then a hazy small figure back in the dark. No other film has so resized me or made me so aware of my dimensions in relation to the world, the measure of my actions, the loudness of my voice, the size of my literal or figurative fingerprint. Outside the three theaters, back in contemporary time, was a world whose scale caught me off guard. It seemed more unwieldy and imposing than when I’d gone in, and its punishments were visibly not commensurate with what humans can tolerate. If only the world could be rescaled to its best proportions, then maybe one could feel at home in it again. This, I think, is also the dream of the film.

Stills from « Unrueh »

All stills courtesy of Seeland Filmproduktion

Plan américain

A plan américain (or cowboy shot) of Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

Louise Michel, Kropotkin & Bakunin

Louise Michel, by Louis Lemercier de Neuville. National Library of France, via Europeana.eu.

Left: Piotr Kropotkin (here « Prince Kropokine »), 1900. Right: Mikhail Bakunin (here: « Bakounine »), 1900. Atelier Nadar, National Library of France, via Europeana.eu.


Uli Edel’s German cult film Christiane F. (1981), about a teenage heroin addict, based on Kai Hermann and Horst Rieck’s book Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, was filmed right around the corner.

Schäublin took a great deal of inspiration from Florian Eitel’s impressive book Anarchistische Uhrmacher in der Schweiz [Anarchist Clockmakers in Switzerland] (Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2018), a microhistory that tells the story of how a small-scale municipal organization effort had global implications for a burgeoning international anarchist movement.

Because precision, of maps or of timepieces, is so central to the plot, my mind drifted several times to the Borges’ story « Del rigor en la ciencia » (On Exactitude in Science, 1946), about an imaginary empire whose mapmakers have made their representations so precise, only a 1:1 scale map (the exact size of the territory it depicts) is satisfactory to them.

Schäublin’s first feature film, Dene wos guet geit (Those who are fine), from 2017, was also shot by Silvan Hillmann and uses a similar compositional style. Set in the present, it treats another aspect of capitalism. The protagonist, who works for a large health insurance corporation, scams elderly women and steals their wealth.

One of the first real motion pictures was the 1895 black-and-white short Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon. Louis Lumière’s iconic scene was perhaps on Fritz Lang’s mind as he filmed the « Shift Change » scene in Metropolis (1927), in which one squad of workers emerges from the factory’s prison bars while another squad enters. Lumière’s film is also clearly cited by Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), which in its first scene montages herded sheep and workers headed from the subway toward factory drudgery.

In one of the film’s many meta-referential moments, as they are asked to act in a worker-organized theater play about the Commune, the protagonists Kropotkin and Joséphine say, « Je ne suis pas protagonist » (« I am not a protagonist »).

I will never forget the French writer Michel Tournier’s observation in one of his books that poor people’s trash is heavy — full of bones, potato peels, gristle, corn cobs, apple cores — while rich people’s trash is light — full of gauzy cellophane, wrapping paper, disposable plastic containers, styrofoam peanuts. He wrote this in the mid-twentieth century. By this measure, are most of us rich today?

They sing the French version of « Rufst du, mein Vaterland », whose melody many will recognize as that of « God Save the King » or « My Country ’Tis of Thee. »

« French toys always mean something, and this something is always entirely socialized, constituted by the myths or the techniques of modern adult life: the Army, Broadcasting, the Post Office, Medicine (miniature instrument-cases, operating theatres for dolls), School, Hair-Styling (driers for permanent-waving), the Air Force (parachutists), Transport (trains, Citroëns, Vedettes, Vespas, petrol-stations), Science (Martian toys). » Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 53.

For more on this iconography, see Michael Marder, Pyropolitics in the World Ablaze (London: Rowan and Littlefield, 2020).

Gerhard Richter’s blurred paintings of photographs are one of the more conscious attempts to play with these visual metaphors of sharpness and blur.