And onions are my cats.
We’ve all felt paralyzed at one time or another, fearing existence and responsibility as opposed to external forces and death. Life becomes our burden, the rote machinations to remain an upstanding member of society and the myriad social imperatives endured to be seen as a person worth ignoring—someone who neither demands attention from being abnormal or overly exceptional. To simply be can prove exhausting because the act of stasis comes with more minutiae than you may think is necessary. Our minds race to decide whether we’re in someone’s way, should speak, should stay quiet, should move or disappear. To be is to question one’s place at any given time. You’re something to those you know, those you don’t, and yourself. Unfortunately the latter often feels least important.
This is why existential art reveals itself to be so crucial and personal to us. We look at Alberto Giacometti’s “Walking Man” and see a physical manifestation of how we feel: stretched out beyond our limits, crushed under the weight of invisible forces dictating our every whim. We read Franz Kafka‘s “The Metamorphosis” and relate to Gregor Samsa’s surreal plight. It’s not uncommon to wake up in a world that’s unfamiliar because you yourself have changed. Everything you loved seems tritely nauseating; everything you hate tolerable. You step outside of your body and discover the burden those surrounding you are and the burden you are to them. You question whether or not the utilitarian truth that benefits those you love is your complete erasure from their cluttered lives.
Writer/director Ramon Zürcher has thrown his hat into this ring with Das merkwürdige Kätzchen [The Strange Little Cat], a feature debut born out of a filmmaking experiment loosely inspired by Kafka’s aforementioned novella. What’s interesting about his spin on that tale is his refusal to draw a Gregor Samsa as central character. He instead posits that we his audience are the focal point watching. We see ourselves in those onscreen as they run through the mundane chaos of a family get-together a la Thanksgiving dinner. Without a plot, destination, or background, we merely experience their random thoughts, playful boredom, and dueling senses of belonging and feeling out of place. Zürcher is showing us how we’re all Gregor Samsas moving forward with nary a clue about where we’re going.
The most obvious example is Jenny Schily‘s “Mother.” She’s the matriarch of this menagerie running amok inside her home—expressionless in demeanor and dryly literal in conversation. Schily stands in her kitchen while everyone moves around her making food, fixing the washer, or doing dishes. She’s frozen in place, the sensory overload she faces as crippling as a situation recalled via flashback wherein her foot was caught under that of the man sitting next to her at the movies. The assumption is that everyone will eventually leave her alone. Everyone will go back to his/her own business. But the longer she waits for them to do so, the more trapped she feels. Her silence and acceptance becomes a prison of condonation. Her jailer is her own dread-inducing patience.
There’s also the curiosity of youth: Clara (Mia Kasalo) constantly trying to be part of the interactions despite never quite understanding exactly what’s being talked about while Jonas (Leon Alan Beiersdorf) spies on the others, listening without a desire to speak. There’s the carefree attitude of young adulthood with Karin (Anjorka Strechel) and Simon (Luk Pfaff) sleeping in and roaming about without any desire to act unless asked. There are the men fixing (Armin Marewski‘s Schwager) and shopping (Matthias Dittmer) and the late arrivals (Sabine Werner‘s Tante and Kathleen Morgeneyer‘s Hanna). And of course the ever-snoozing Grandmother (Monika Hetterle) as prop to move from here to there. None are provided histories by Zürcher, just life. We enter their world rather than them ours. We give their actions meaning.
As such, one could dismiss The Strange Little Cat as a nothing film. On the surface it’s merely a glimpse into a crowded apartment as the coffee grinder incessantly grinds while young Clara screams for attention and the others ignore her with a smile. We are never sure of relationships (Are Karin and Simon siblings or lovers? Is Clara their child or Schily’s? Is Schwager Schily’s brother or ex-husband?), but being sure isn’t necessary. It’s less about how they know each other and more about how they act in close proximity. It’s about their confidence and/or trepidation. It’s about their easy distractions with spinning bottles and squirting sausages. It’s about their snarky retorts and absent-minded viciousness (at least two attempt to purposefully step on the cat).
It’s simultaneously presented as a jumbled mess of reality and crazy nightmarish dream. We can read Schily’s nonplussed demeanor as her being used to the insanity of family and friends or as someone who feels she’s on the outside looking in. Whenever one of the children cut themselves, she puts their bleeding finger onto their nose to mark them as “real.” But when she tries to prick her own with a needle, nothing happens. Maybe this means she’s physically not present or psychologically lost and apart from those who are. There’s a definite disconnect that could just be the product of resigning herself to hosting a large party or an existential crisis wherein fear refuses to let her leave a situation she cannot endure. She, like us, is voyeur.
Zürcher plays with time—jump cutting without showing the movement between one scene and the next—and vantage—his static camera often badly placed once characters move out of frame and animals in. It’s like he wants us to find meaning in his directorial decisions despite those decisions existing with purposeful intent. I continually felt like his goal was merely to force the audience to do the heavy lifting. He gives us this puzzle of mundane humanity and we project purpose upon it as our own lives demand. It’s therefore frustrating on the surface and yet intellectually rewarding once we delve into its unspoken depths after the fact. He has created a cinematic Rorschach test, the result being as hollow or expansive as you the viewer see fit.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.