“The Strange Little Cat” (“Das merkwürdige Kätzchen”)
In the Kitchen
Siblings Karin and Simon have come to visit their parents and their little sister Clara. That evening, other relatives will be joining them for dinner. When we meet everyone they all; seem to be quite ordinary; they speak about regular things as they sit and “schmooze”. We see people who live in a world of coming and going and who do all manner of doings, each movement leading to the next, one word following another. Yet we see silent gazes and anecdotes about experiences. The people act oddly; their dialogues are direct and unemotional. Even the pets and the material surroundings play a part. Some objects seem alive as if by magic. Commonplace actions and familiar items appear absurd and eerie in this narrative cosmos. So what could Ramon Zürcher have to tell us about ordinary people doing ordinary things? Just wait a few minutes.
In its opening minutes, an orange tabby paws at a door, opening its mouth to meow. Zürcher matches the shot with an off-screen sound cue of a family’s youngest daughter, Clara (Mia Kasalo), screeching in tune with a kitchen appliance. It’s a disarming effect. At first we think the kitty has the voice of a wailing child—strange, indeed—only to realize that Zürcher is cuing us to his next scene, as he simultaneously collapses and expands the space of the smallish family apartment in which the bulk of the film, excluding some anecdotal flashbacks, unfolds. Yet even though the film takes place in the single setting of the kitchen, it begins to feel roomy thus not like a claustrophobic place and it sets the tone for what is to follow. The film is one of overlapping sound design, careful camera shots and controlled minimalism. We soon see that the film is not about cat slinking in and out of the frame, but a “magic bottle” that recurs throughout—a glass container which, when filled with just the right amount of water, appears to wobble continually inside of a kitchen pot. As the characters joke, quarrel, and chat, director Zürcher pays particular attention to the tiny details of their environment: a loose screw rattling inside a washing machine, a grocery list, a moth flitting about from room to room, and of course, that cat.
We watch the family reveal bits about themselves through digressive stories and we see that most movies offer us a chance to look at multiple meanings of our lives as we deal with the typical occurrences of the day. Every once in while we see a special film that awakens our senses, stimulates our minds, and awes us with a magical and momentous appreciation of everyday spirituality.
The mother (Jenny Shily) floats around the space, sometimes giving orders, other times escaping to look out the window. Her smart and sensitive daughter Clara (Mia Kasalo) has the irritating habit of yelling loudly whenever a kitchen appliance goes off. We hear the screeching of a cat, the barking of a dog, the clanging of a washing machine, the shutting of a door, the grinding of the garbage disposal, and the whirl of a blender. Most amazing of all is the “magic bottle” on the stove that spins around speaking its own improvisational story. The father (Matthias Dittmer) arrives in the kitchen and asks Clara to spell milk and salad. Mother gives her some bits and pieces to feed the sparrows only to find out that Clara has stopped this act of charity. Karin (Anjorka Strechel), the older daughter, asks, “Is Clara crazy?” and Mother replies, “Yes.” Then Karin adds, “The cat is crazy, too.” Then we see the orange tabby clawing at a shut door and meowing. She also comes into the cramped kitchen and manages to jump up on the table and knock a glass to the floor. The cat, we realize, is living in its own little world just like all the family members who surround her.
Mother may or may not be having an affair with her sister’s husband who shows up to fix the washing machine. She tells Karin about an unsettling incident at the movie theater where a man put his foot over hers. She waited for him to remove it but he didn’t. She tried to concentrate on the screen but found herself focused on his foot on top of hers. Finally, he removed it and she felt a great sense of liberation. What is important about this conversation is that we get an idea that the mother has sexual desires that are not being taken care of by her husband. The other conversations really have no depth but this one seems to.
Others arrive including Clara and Karin’s brother, grandma, and a quiet teenager. The movements are dance like as various characters squeeze by each other putting away the dishes, getting a cup of tea, stepping aside to let another pass. I can see how some may find this to be a detailed portrait of the obstacles to spirituality put up by the daily distractions of unimportant chat, time-consuming and boring chores, and constant noise but there is something else. These obstacles and complications show that the sacred is carried into our hearts and minds by crazy cats, magical bottles on the stove, honest confessions, and cups of tea that bring great pleasure. Sacred does not come in spiritual retreats are weird experiences but it what we do on a daily basis.
The 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.
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. There are no shock revelations, no resolutions, and it reveals almost nothing about its characters. This is excellent minimalist filmmaking par excellence and a delight to watch.