Closely scripted and choreographed yet disarmingly casual in appearance, Ramon Zürcher’s family portrait is confined mostly to a Berlin apartment where 10 various relatives come and go during the course of a long, relaxed Saturday. There’s also a neighbor child and the family cat and dog, but let’s not bother with names. Zürcher is more concerned with the behavioral quirks and structuring routines of domestic life than plot. This is a movie with much food prep, half-completed sentences, people wandering in and out of rooms, gestures and phrases echoing, thoughts left lingering, and an open window admitting the occasional stray bird or tennis ball. Drinking glasses are dropped and fingers bloodied. The washing machine is repaired. The youngest member of the household, an impish girl of about 8, shrieks every time her mother runs the coffee grinder. Why? Clearly her parents have stopped wondering. There are more important things to do, like making toast.
Zürcher supposedly based this film, his first feature, on Kafka’s Metamorphosis ; and his assignment came in a class taught by long-take auteur Béla Tarr (The Turin Horse, Werckmeister Harmonies, etc.). Little of that text is in evidence here. Instead of a bizarre transformation that forces us to view the world—and its arbitrary rules of plausibility—anew, the film achieves its low-key absurdism through sheer domestic repetition. The mood is not quite comic (the girl is slapped more than once for misbehaving), and a few select flashbacks suggest a darker undercurrent. The mother, for instance, confesses she likes dining alone at a cheap restaurant—by implication, to escape her clamorous, needy family.
Perhaps Zürcher’s metamorphosis is this: Imagine yourself magically transported into some other family, and no one noticed the addition. There you could witness the loving, everyday inanity that keeps these bizarre (to you) individuals together—the rituals that run stronger than shared DNA. (Unless they are the products of that DNA.) That’s the through-the-looking-glass trick that Zürcher achieves, though this family is no stranger—or more interesting—than yours or mine. Runs Fri., Aug. 22–Thurs., Aug. 28 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 72 minutes.