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Ramon Zürcher • Director

Limits of language, power of sound


- The Strange Little Cat had world-premiered in the 2013 Berlinale's Forum section. It won the New Talent Grand PIX at CPH PIX in Copenhagen, and screened at numerous festivals, including Toronto and San Francisco.

Ramon Zürcher • Director

Cineuropa: At first glance, the family life in your The Strange Little Cat [+see also:
film review
interview: Ramon Zürcher
film profile
 seems harmonious, happy, if a bit chaotic. But if you look more closely, it is not hard to detect an undercurrent of passive aggression between the family members.

Ramon Zürcher: The perceptions of the film often diverge a lot. Some emphasize the comic aspect, others the rather psychodramatic characteristics – some see the film as light-footed, others as rather oppressive (stressing the passive aggression as a dominant element of the film's atmosphere). I think the film can easily be watched several times and each time there's other things the spectator's focus is pointed at. Also, often, within a second viewing, spectators grasp things that have escaped their attention in the first place. This is a consequence of the camera concept and the way the script is written (i.e. the way the actions and dialogues are embedded within the film). Neither the actions nor the dialogues in The Strange Little Cat are subordinated to a classical linear narrative, but rather have an autonomous existence. They are treated as fragments and combined without being a slave to the plot (like when producing a collage). Their presence and order are not necessarily defined, at least measured by criteria of classical narrative cinema. Furthermore the events are not always presented in "ideal" or classically spectator-friendly ways (e.g. out of the camera's focus or even in the OFF-space, being presented only through sound), the spectators need a bit of detective skills to conceive and follow the minimal sub-narratives.

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Also, many things are happening simultaneously, as if sometimes there were two films being screened at the same time, and the spectators need to focus on which film to follow. So the same elements are not always being conceived by all viewers, but different ones. That's also in a way a consequence of the realism I was interested in: I tried to construe a rich and diverse cosmos with many aspects and constituents that can be revealed by the spectators, but do not lay on the surface – similar to the way we are related to reality. But this kind of realism does not have anything to do with naturalism, as the film's universe is stylized and construed (not as if pre-existing to the film and only waiting to be filmed). You can easily watch the film repeatedly and still discover new elements.

The choreography of protagonists moving around the apartment, especially the kitchen, is flawless. How did you work with the actors and DoP on the mise-en-scène?

Already while writing the script I had a very clear idea of the apartment, and in this "ideal apartment", I devised the precise choreography of the characters and animals. When we finally found the actual apartment for the shooting, it didn't match the one I had in mind. That's why DoP Alexander Hasskerl and I had to adapt the initial script to the apartment to be able to remain faithful to the visual concept we wanted to stick to (e.g. economical editing, static camera, intense and dynamic mise-en-scène). After adapting the script, we produced a detailed storyboard that described the choreographies. This storyboard was very helpful as we already had a kind of recipe or a roadmap for the shooting to better work and shape the choreographies in efficient ways.

The rehearsals took place on the respective shooting days. We were looking for the appropriate rhythm, the rhythm that felt right. That was very interesting (above all to test whether the conceived situations and performances I had in mind also worked in organic ways in reality or not), but also exhausting, especially when children, actors and animals all had to be present in a specific choreography at the very same time. There was also some time pressure, as children in Germany are only allowed to work very limited hours per day.

The stories the characters tell to each other seem to belong more in a person's diary or contemplation than in conversation.

The comparison with diary writing is very appropriate. The characters recount their experiences to other family members that would usually not be told, because these stories are not classically interesting, but rather irrelevant or trivial. Nevertheless, they communicate these experiences in an intimate way to others, and the way they speak is constructed to feel more like thinking than talking. I guess the characters want to be understood, they want to share experienced intimate situations with others. To escape solitude. But they are confronted by the limitations of their language. They do not succeed in sharing their experiences by means of communication, the others stay detached and non-participant. The monologues do not become dialogues that connect the characters. So they stay isolated and separated. Even within the intimate circle of family.

You worked a lot with sounds of household appliances and visual details like separate shots of a cup of tea, a glass of milk, or an orange peel on the floor.

The script was written in two colours: black for all the events on-screen and green for all the off-screen ones that are presented by sound only. It is important for me to think of the sound of a film as early as possible while writing the script, because the film medium is audiovisual and both components are equally important. The earlier I start thinking about the sound, the better it can be incorporated in the film's texture.

I wanted to conceive the sound design in a way that makes it takes on the qualities of music, using sounds that are diegetic (that have their origins in the film's setting itself, e.g. the coffee-machine or the washing machine) so that they support certain aspects (e.g. the destructive sound of the coffee-machine is related to the mother and her passive aggressive traits). As the film only has a minimal plot, a precise elaboration of the film's atmosphere was very important to me.

Concerning the "still life" shots of the objects, we wanted to incorporate the objects in a way, as if they were elements of the film that are as important as the characters, animals or sentences. They deserve a certain presence they do not get in traditional film universes. They are not really relevant during the scenes with the characters, they are even hardly perceived by the spectators. But later, when they are presented again in the sequences with single shots of them – as still life images – they get a museum presence, because the film's focus shifts to them and they get a silent role in this domestic dance. They are the traces of the preceding actions that take place in this apartment on this day.

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