ND/NF Interview: Ramon Zürcher
Building mysteries from the stuff of everyday life, Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat consists of a constantly shifting set of contradictions. Set entirely in a small apartment in Berlin during one hectic day and night, it is a portrait of a loving family that also harbors aching loneliness. It is a film of static camera setups that is full of motion, and one in which inert appliances seem to gain a conscious life of their own.
This alien object, which screens March 25 and 26 in New Directors / New Films, is the debut feature of Swiss-born twins Ramon and Silvan Zürcher. Silvan produced; Ramon wrote and directed. FILM COMMENT spoke with Ramon last week about Fluxus performance, the Berlin School, and what it was like having Béla Tarr as a teacher.
Where did you grow up, and how did you get into filmmaking?
I grew up in Switzerland, close to the capital Bern, between Bern and the countryside. At school I studied arts. The main focus was video art, experimental film, and performance. I also studied painting and photography. After those studies I worked for a year, then applied for film school in Germany. In Switzerland there aren’t so many interesting film schools. Then I went to Berlin. And now it’s been seven years I’ve studied there [at the dffb, Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin]. The Strange Little Cat is the film I made before receiving a diploma.
What artists did you most gravitate to in school?
The videos I made were rather surreal, without sound, some of them a little like Magritte. The most important thing I discovered during my studies were the performances of the movement called Fluxus. We had one Fluxus workshop, around eight students. We got some notes which would be the content of the performance. For example, they would instruct you to “eat an orange as if it were an apple.” Another was “hold your hand out the window.” Out of those small pieces, the eight students made one very, very weird improvisation. Those constructed scenes got together in a non-linear and a very improvised way. So it was something very constructed, but also very, very free. That’s something that always interests me, to have something very controlled, and something that is more free, more according to the situation. That experience was most important to me.
This freedom inside of control could also describe the structure of The Strange Little Cat. How did the film come about?
I had made some short films, so The Strange Little Cat is a continuation of those. They had the formal interest of the static camera and dynamic mise en scène, and I wanted to continue that. At school there was a workshop with Béla Tarr, and he gave us a text from Franz Kafka, and I chose The Metamorphosis. I took it as an inspiration, or as the first thing on the white paper, and then I started the journey out of that text. Now the film is very far away from that text.
I wanted to make something that didn’t have many time jumps. I wanted to make something that was real-time storytelling, to create a space which is close to theater, and which doesn’t have a normal way of creating time, building time. And I didn’t want to tell much of a story. It would have hidden stories under the surface. I wanted to create a certain atmosphere and mood in the apartment, to build sculptures of the psyches, mostly of the mother. One day in the life of a family, starting in the morning and ending in the evening. And it’s walking through the apartment, and discovering it, and while we discover it we discover the characters.
What was it like having Béla Tarr as a teacher? Did he see any versions of the film as you were working on it?
He was there for one month to do that workshop. I met him six or seven times. It was mostly pre-production, before shooting but after writing the script. The subject of our conversation was mostly the camera. But also the actors, the physiognomy, their faces. The things we spoke about were very concrete. He told me to watch a film by Chantal Akerman, Jeanne Dielman. The camera concept—I didn’t know planimetric camera [composition]. Béla Tarr explained it to me. He introduced me to thinking of space in a planimetric camera concept, where there is not an angle between the camera and the wall. It’s like in the theater, very flat space. Like in the films of Wes Anderson. To make the room more abstract—when it’s at an angle, it’s more realistic. He hasn’t seen the film yet, because I thought he would come back to school to see all the films. I just sent him a DVD.
There is a lot of intricate choreography of the family bustling about, often scrambling around a single centrally framed figure, who is alone in the swirl of the group. Was that also part of your conception of the film?
That became a topic during the screenwriting process. Loneliness, isolation in a group, became one of the aspects of it. But actually it’s funny to have many people in a group, to have those situations where the people are isolated. That being part of a family, part of a group, does not exclude being lonely. It’s also an aspect of the construction of the dialogue. Often the people that speak, they do it in monologues rather than dialogues. The language doesn’t link the characters but rather makes them even more isolated.
Your camera is very static, with most of the movement happening within the frame. How much of that choreography did you have worked out beforehand?
The first thing was an imaginary storyboard that I had in my head during the screenwriting process. I had an ideal apartment in my head. That apartment didn’t exist in reality, because they are so different here in Berlin. After I wrote the script, I met with the DP Alexander Hasskerl, and we drew up the kitchen and the other rooms. During the storyboarding we made drawings of where the table is, the cupboard, the plant, the coffee machine. That was so we could develop a montage, an editing that is rather economic. Because we knew we did not want to cut much. After the storyboard, I wrote the script again. Not anew, but I changed many things, so it worked with the style of editing. Most of the choreography was thought [out] before, and drawn before.
The apartment was so old, that some days, before the shooting, we couldn’t go there to do the storyboarding because the people had to renovate. So Alexander had software, and he built the whole apartment in it, down to including the height of the actors. He was able to storyboard in a digital way. So our storyboards were a mixture of digital, animated pictures, of drawing and of photography.
Where was the Berlin apartment you shot the feature in?
The neighborhood’s name is Moabit. It’s rather an unknown neighborhood. Not so many people want to live there. It was the only apartment we could find that was not so expensive. Our project was very low-budget: we had €11,000 to use for the rent, the lighting, the gasoline. Very, very cheap.
You really expand the space in the film through the use of off-screen sound. You were the sound designer—how did you approach that aspect?
I thought about the sounds during the screenwriting. I wanted the apartment to be an instrument. The coffee machine is an instrument, a destructive sound. Or the washing machine, the mixer. Or when people throw the rubbish outside. I wanted that there. I wanted to create very concrete noises.
Since you attended the dffb, do you feel an affinity with the so-called “Berlin School” directors who studied there?
In Switzerland the Berlin School films have not been shown in cinemas. When I came to Berlin for school, I discovered that filmmaking. During the years I’ve lived here, the Berlin School’s filmmaking became the most interesting in the German-speaking arena. Angela Schanelec’s films were the most important for me. Also, Thomas Arslan—A Fine Day. I loved it so much.
I thought you might be interested in Petzold because he uses sound, and off-screen sound, in similar ways as your film.
I like Schanelec and Arslan’s films because they are a little bit more open. For me it's very important that after watching a film, you have the feeling of having met those characters. Or having met a way of thinking, or a new way of perceiving the world—a new view. After the films of Schanelec and Arslan, I am more inspired. More fascination, more secrets. I also like the films of Christian Petzold, like Ghosts. I love films which are secrets.