Many cinephiles will fondly recall that one of 2013’s biggest surprises came in one of its seemingly smallest movies, Ramon & Silvan Zürcher’s debut feature The Strange Little Cat. Running at just over 70 minutes, it follows one family over the course of a fairly average day in their modest apartment, with little to no plot to speak of—and yet it was a riveting formal marvel that created the most unexpected resonances out of its limited scenario. Peculiar shot choices, patterns, and rhythms revealed (without actually revealing) signs of the strangeness of everyday life, of boiling emotions that never quite reach the surface. Where the film was thin in plot it was thick with mystery.
At last, eight years later and the Zürcher twins have re-emerged with The Girl and the Spider, their sophomore feature and the second of a planned trilogy, and another work of quiet strangeness. A bit larger in scope yet still deliberately limited to a specific set of elements, the film revolves around a young woman named Mara (Henriette Confurius) as she helps her roommate Lisa (Liliane Amuat) move into a new apartment. Mostly split between the two flats, the film follows anyone it finds in this orbit and the loaded but ambiguous dynamics between them, as Mara subtly resists and rebels against this change.
As with The Strange Little Cat, the Zürchers scrutinize the normal and render it anything but with the eccentricity of their style. Typical spaces we inhabit become charged with invisible conflict, relationships are imbued with the sheer intensity of unexpressed feelings and desire, and moments of restrained release are characterized by casual cruelty and subtle destructiveness. This time around they’re not as limited to the exclusively quotidian which, here, occasionally gives way to fairytale-like flights of fancy. It could be described as a spiralling outward from the formal universe of their first feature. Creating and sustaining suspense through its push and pull of obfuscations and palpable tensions, they choreograph a complex and compelling dance of unarticulated inner lives.
Ramon is the primary director with Silvan credited as “co-director” but the film is marketed as “a film by Ramon & Silvan Zürcher”. Their collaboration is a fluid one with blurred distinctions, taking different roles over writing duties from film-to-film with both equally adept at fielding questions regarding all aspects of their filmmaking. I spoke to them ahead of The Girl and the Spider’s World Premiere in the Encounters competition at the 71st Berlinale.
dam Cook: This is the second film of a planned trilogy. Can you talk about that concept as well as how you see The Girl and the Spider as both expanding on The Strange Little Cat and doing something new?
Silvan Zürcher: I’ll start with this idea of expansion. The Girl and the Spider has more surrealist elements that didn’t exist in The Strange Little Cat as well as certain elements of horror movies that entered here visually. Actually, with The Strange Little Cat these elements did exist on a script level, but we were ultimately more strict in keeping it to an observational level and not to letting inner realities come out and become visual. With The Girl and the Spider we didn’t have this censorship.
Ramon Zürcher: Another simple thing is The Strange Little Cat takes place on one day in one flat and The Girl and the Spider takes place over two days in different flats, and the third part of the trilogy which will be The Sparrow in the Chimney takes place over three days, so time is enlarged in each film. One step more where we also went further with The Girl and the Spider is making the characters’ longing, desires, and sexuality more present, which was under the surface in The Strange Little Cat. Here it’s a more sexualized space.
The idea for the trilogy happened intuitively. I wrote The Strange Little Cat, Silvan wrote The Girl and the Spider and I wrote The Sparrow in the Chimney, and in this process there was this idea of making a trilogy because both the aesthetics and the topics made them into something like siblings. So now it’s a package, these three films which kind of belong together.
AC: It expands in duration and in the range of emotions you mention but also in terms of ensemble, how many characters, how many perspectives we have. One thing that I found interesting is how it keeps expanding throughout to unexpected new figures. For example, at one point you cut to an entirely new character, a construction worker, who exists only for that one shot.
Silvan Zürcher: The radius is broader and there’s also this choice to have a voiceover at one point from a character that doesn’t even have an important role or function in the plot. This decision shows that it’s not that predictable which characters are getting a spotlight so that actually the ensemble is itself unpredictable. The Strange Little Cat was limited to the characters in the apartment and here we have, for instance, the pharmaceutical assistant that comes into focus.
AC: There’s a certain element of surprise in The Strange Little Cat, we can never predict who the film will cut to, each cut can reveal an unexpected observer of what we were just seeing in the frame. There was this element of surprise in how sequences move and what they reveal and that’s present in the new film but like you say with this larger radius. Can you talk about this unusual logic of perspective and building sequences?
Ramon Zürcher: What you describe, how it cuts from something to someone observing it from a different perspective, it has a volatile effect that every time anyone could be a spectator of things. Sometimes they are part of the scene, sometimes they are just a spectator. And in it’s in a space where doors are always open and walls are always transparent, so even if characters are separated or isolated in chambers and rooms and flats, it’s a feeling of an open house. That you never know who could be the next person, or the next shot, that’s something I like. Often when you have a plot-driven film you have one protagonist and you always have a reason why you leave that protagonist so it’s a universe that always has its stance but I like universes where there is a protagonist but it’s not always the plot that causes us to leave the protagonist.
It can be something volatile, as if it’s a world that doesn’t always make sense and things happen which are not because of the plot. I think that’s something that I like, then you see that person, the construction worker for example, which has no rational reason, he’s just there, but you show his face and gets an appearance and suddenly a presence which is like a surprise. I like those little surprises.
AC: I think this creates constant suspense and tension in a space where you aren’t used to feeling it, of what we see next and who’s involved and how.
As you said, there are more emotions and desires made palpable in this film but you still like to keep the inner lives of characters obscured. We don’t know the backstory, the history between characters, what they are thinking, you hint or imply and the viewer has to participate in figuring out the dynamics between characters.
Silvan Zürcher: If the characters would reveal their inner drama in a concrete sense then the film would lose its atmosphere because it’s not a dramatic plot, it’s minimalistic. So actually it is about these conditions, this mystery, without these conditions then there wouldn’t be any dramatic concern anymore. The film really focuses on the characters’ conditions, not the plot.
Ramon Zürcher: It’s like a personal gaze on how life could be or how it is or how one could be. When you walk around and meet people you don’t know their biography or their desires. We don’t want to be extremely naturalistic but we do want to realistically show how in life there are mysteries and things you don’t know, there are little signs we interpret.
Actually, it has much to do with the narrator which is mostly the camera itself and is not a narrator who knows everything but is like an alien who landed on earth and is watching what happens. And when something happens he goes there and then a person cries somewhere else so he goes there. He follows his interest or where something moves or is, he collects the signs and tries to understand who is who and what happens. He never knows everything about everybody so it’s kind of like how life feels, how it feels being human, but in an artificial way. So it’s this bi-polar thing of showing realistically how it feels to live as a human being but with stylization.
AC: I love this idea of a curious camera consciousness with a limited purview. The way the characters communicate is also interesting, it’s very indirect, they don’t say what they’re feeling, or rarely, and they often speak to one another in stories, when there’s a certain emotion, a character will share an unrelated anecdote. And then there are children and animals prominent in both films. I’m wondering if you could talk about the role they play and what interests you about them? Also in relation to the human behaviour we were talking about, how there are these emotions not being expressed and how they come out in strange ways, and perhaps the children and animals can be the innocent victims of these adult emotions. For example, in one of many rhymes between The Strange Little Cat and The Girl and the Spider, in the first film, there’s the moment where Jenny Schily almost steps on the cat on purpose, and in the new film where Mara pours coffee on the dog…
Silvan Zürcher: We like to control things in front of the camera, it’s something we like aesthetically, to control the movement of the actors for instance, the staging of the props, these visual details are kind of determined before we film. But animals and children are dangerous when one wants to control things so we like to have this borderline situation of order and chaos, to try to create a controlled chaos.
Ramon Zürcher: And like you say there’s a kind of violence and aggression and as children and animals they have that innocent aspect, that side, and when violence or aggression happen it’s even worse when you see a child is also there because a child is very fragile and very open. There’s that basic interest of the presence of violence and the presence of something innocent of children and animals.
AC: Your films portray what seem like normal, stable lives in domestic spaces going through familiar everyday patterns, but there’s this feeling that it could all fall apart and that there are these cracks—or literal scratches and cuts that manifest—maybe those aggressions are moments where we see these cracks in the stability of daily life.
Silvan Zürcher: When developing the project we thought about a catastrophe film, because these scratches you refer to, it was a central element of this project that things are falling apart, that the world around Mara is breaking apart and even the digital, virtual world, like her PDF, fall apart, that also people she’s attached to leave her so that it’s a brittle world and she gets injured during the film again and again. This was actually something we wanted to use to characterize Mara.
Ramon Zürcher: We thought of Mara as very static, somebody who wants to stay still, to conserve things as they are, but as Lisa leaves, nothing can be conserved, not even her skin, there’s the herpes, her finger, her forehead. Everything falls apart, nothing can be conserved it’s like she’s standing in a river but it’s a river, it all moves. There’s even this floorplan where she draws children in and the spilled wine turns it into an abstract painting, even this drawing cannot stay on the page. It’s like she is in a river and she would like to have an island with Lisa and the others but life itself cannot stop moving.
AC: With the scenario of moving flats, a big transition like this, there’s this theme of the old and new, of change, but that’s an illusion, everyday is change, is transition, so in these exaggerated moments of change, like a roommate moving out, we can recognize this change and it catches up to you so if you’re someone like Mara who is not aware of this movement, these moments with a big change can shock you.
Ramon Zürcher: Yes and with everything changing and moving it is if that fact that there’s a change that attacks mara, she attacks back and makes scratches, it’s like the transience attacks her so instead of being melancholic or sad or to say out loud that she is sad that this is happening, she attacks back. She becomes a bit like a little monster!
AC: Henriette Confurius, who plays Mara, has a very striking gaze. So did Jenny Schily in The Strange Little Cat. I’m curious about your approach to casting actors? Is it mostly because of this kind of presence?
Ramon Zürcher: It’s not something conceptual the face, the voice but the most important thing is the eyes. When I saw the pictures of Henriette Confurius it was those eyes which had a certain intensity. Sometimes she could look very aggressive and sometimes very tender and sensitive. It’s the appearance and then it’s how they speak, how it feels when they say the dialogue and perform the actions. Then it’s just intuition, just a feeling.
AC: A last question: What is your favourite trilogy?
Silvan Zürcher: Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy, with The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss and Lola. I would call this my favourite trilogy. Especially the first two.
Ramon Zürcher: Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy came to mind first but then I thought of Rohmer’s Tales of the Four Seasons but that’s four films…
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