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The Berlinale Blog: Affecting – German families

For non-native Berlinale visitors: Ramon Zürcher’s Das Merkwürdige Kätzchen is your chance to get uncomfortably close to a German family and a badly-insulated Berliner Altbau. Eve Lucas explores this and one other version of German family values.

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“Das Merkwürdige Kätzchen”

Based on a day-in-the-life-of structure, Das Merkwürdige Kätzchen, the debut feature from Ramon Zürcher (a graduate of Berlin’s DFFB Film School), takes a long and dispassionate look at familial communication à l’allemand: a taciturn father, tense mother, sanguine older son and two daughters in varying stages of precocity share space in the kitchen, bathroom, hallway and dining room. A cat purrs, the dog barks from outside the door: a dozing grandmother and adjunct sister-in-law plus husband and son fill whatever vacuums remain.

Claustrophobia is palpable; spoken and visual exchange so carefully measured that the frequently referenced blood-pressure-gauge is an almost superfluous (perhaps ironical) metaphor for the gridlock of rising and falling tension. Ditto the washing machine that needs to be repaired for more cyclical family life. The less ambivalent formal choices are more successful. Zürcher’s insistence on relentless close-ups presents proximity without encouraging a specific reading of intimacy: when a glass bottle finally pops and takes out the kitchen light, we’re not sure whether to expect laughter or tears. This restrained study of the emotional and physical matter framing, (and constraining) family life should be the start of an interesting career.

In My Sisters, Lars Kraume’s portrait of the last weekend in the life of three sisters about to become two is easier by far to read, if not to watch. Linda (Jördis Treibel), born with a heart condition, has lived against heavy odds to the age of 30 but has a strong sense that she may not survive the next operation. Married to a well-meaning man overwhelmed by the prospect of his wife’s death, she decides to spend the weekend before (what we know to be) her ultimate operation with her sisters: the older wiry, hands-on mother-of-three Katharina (Nina Kunzenberg) and the perennially overwhelmed, artistically inclined Clara (Lisa Hagmeister), her younger sibling.

They start their excursion with a trip to the sea, and the boarding house of their youth, before taking the night train to Paris to visit a favourite aunt and uncle. It’s a journey that could easily end in disaster—or worse still, maudlin sentimentality. The fact that it only rarely does so is down to the three main actresses. As Linda, Treibel is a joy to watch, calm mostly and factual, encouraging affection or deciding, briefly, to shatter the vice of familial care by disappearing for some hours and wheezing through a nocturnal Paris in a last shout at life (accompanied by Béatrice Dalle revisiting her role in Jarmusch’s Night on Earth) She’s ably backed by Kunzenberg and Hagmeister who play the antipodes of dependability and neediness without reverting to stereotype.

The straightforward, emotion-based approach applied by director Lars Kraume (Guten Morgen, Herr Grothe, 2007) won’t win any prizes for stylistic or plot subtlety. But Kraume’s experience as a Tatort director shows in his well-tailored pace, whilst his admiration of Leigh and Cassavetes is reflected in improv dialogue. Both factors merge to create an impression of faltering progress as his protagonists stumble physically and emotionally towards the inevitable. “Be still my beating heart, it would be better to be cool.” Who said it? Sting. Don’t listen to him.