The Strange Little Cat (Das Merkwurdige Katzchen): Berlin Review
Young Berliner Ramon Zurcher’s charmingly oddball debut finds a world of comic possibility inside a single family apartment.
A delightfully fresh and original Berlinale debut from locally-based writer-director Ramon Zurcher, this sunny addition to the Forum section may yet prove to be the most purely pleasurable experience on offer at the festival. The family set-up feels like a TV sitcom, but the lively domestic dance that follows plays more like surreal farce.
Though born in Switzerland and schooled in Berlin, the 30-year-old Zurcher appears to be channeling the comic maestros of French cinema here, from Jacques Tati to Michel Gondry, with just a twist of Francois Ozon to keep the sweetness in check. Further festival slots seem inevitable, where commercial prospects should be boosted by good word-of-mouth.
The action takes place almost entirely within a single Berlin apartment, where three generations of a middle-class family gather ahead of their shared evening meal. Cheeky but hugely charming, youngest child Clara (Mia Kasalo) livens up a dull afternoon by screaming at kitchen appliances. Her unnamed mother (Jenny Schily) remains serenely calm, exchanging low-voltage sexual tension with the male neighbor who is fixing her washing machine. Conversation is blank and deadpan, but with a steady undercurrent of zingy humor. A bottle spins magically. A moth dances from room to room. The eponymous ginger cat slinks in and out of frame.
Zurcher has clearly taken great care to make this compact story bounce along so effortlessly. Every shot is crisply edited and precisely composed, with recurring geometric patterns and visual motifs, most obviously human heads framed in close-up from behind. The mellifluous score, by the experimental San Francisco rock trio Thee More Shallows, is a shiny chamber-orchestra affair in sub-Michael Nyman vein.
The all-ages ensemble cast exudes an easy chemistry, managing to suggest a shared wealth of family in-jokes and anecdotes without ever articulating them. Snappy dialogue is a key ingredient, but movement is crucial, too. These characters dance around each other in their cramped hallway and crowded kitchen, their actions choreographed as much as scripted. At times, we could almost be watching a modern dance piece or art-gallery installation. It makes perfect sense that Zurcher started his career as a video artist.
There are so many witty touches and sharp little observations here that The Strange Little Cat can be forgiven for ultimately making no dramatic statement. It delivers no shock revelations, offers no resolutions, and reveals almost nothing about its characters. And yet this is minimalist filmmaking par excellence, a sunny delight from end to end. The question now is whether Zurcher has exhausted his bag of tricks or whether he can expand his inventive, playful, highly original style into bigger projects.
Venue: Berlin Forum press screening, February 10
Production company: DFFB
Producers: Silvan Zurcher, Johanna Bergel
Cast: Jenny Schily, Mia Kasalo, Anjorka Strechel, Luk Pfaff, Matthias Ditmer, Armin Marewski
Director: Ramon Zurcher
Screenwriter: Ramon Zurcher
Cinematographer: Alexander Hasskerl
Editor: Ramon Zurcher
Music: Thee More Shallows
Sales company: Siehe Produktion
Rating TBC, 72 minutes