EVEN THIS NON-GERMAN SPEAKER caught the telling use of the word unheimlich in The Strange Little Cat, writer-director Ramon Zürcher’s shrewd first feature. Unfolding over the course of a Saturday in a modestly appointed, bustling Berlin family apartment, the film incisively defamiliarizes the quotidian.
The feline of the title—a beautiful orange tabby—is merely one of the many creatures busily circulating through this crowded high-rise dwelling. The ginger kitty also shares the same space with a black dog, a moth, and an ever-expanding group of siblings, cousins, in-laws, grandmothers, neighbors, and others. Unclear at first, the relationships slowly begin to establish themselves. Clara (Mia Kasalo), the little girl in the yellow sweatshirt who lets out a high-pitched wail whenever the cappuccino maker is turned on, is the kid sister of soft-butch Karin (Anjorka Strechel) and indolent Simon (Luk Pfaff), both roughly in their late teens to early twenties and visiting home for a few days. Their mother (Jenny Schily), though outwardly calm, seems constantly on the verge of erupting.
The tension that’s so palpable in Mutter, in fact, made me brace for an orgy of violence—which, fortunately, is never realized. But The Strange Little Cat does foreground more common, insidious acts of barbarity, adding to the movie’s odd rhythms and tone: a foot raised, then slowly lowered over the tabby’s head as it eats; a Hacky Sack chucked aggressively at the child who pleads for its return. As in the extended middle-class clans in the films of Lucrecia Martel, the bonds between Cat’s family suggest impropriety. Bathroom doors are rarely closed; the W.C., in fact, is where Karin and Simon engage in somewhat queasy-making horseplay—and where Mom can barely mask her attraction to her brother-in-law (Armin Marewski), who’s come over to fix the washing machine.
Zürcher occasionally takes us out of the film’s confining present tense by using flashbacks to illustrate a character’s peculiar tale, such as Karin’s account of tossing orange peels. Her weird chronicle typifies Zürcher’s unerring instinct for assembling familial rituals: OCD acts, such as Clara’s constant logging of her relatives’ blood pressure, that will be both instantly recognizable—and thus mildly discomfiting—to viewers who recall their own kin’s particular practices. Zürcher’s talent for illuminating the specific also extends to his precise arrangement of bodies in rooms and hallways; the various entrances to and exits from the kitchen, for example, reveal a tightly, yet never fussily so, controlled choreography. Similarly, many of the utterances—the chorus of byes (“Tschüss!”); the constant query of “Where’s ———?”; Clara’s coffeemaker-synched screams—ring sharply as the cacophonous sound track to the mundane chaos that seems to take over whenever blood ties gather. The noises produce a haunting echo in this uncanny valley, reverberating from character to spectator and back again.
The Strange Little Cat plays August 1–7 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.