Like Classic Tragedies, Yet So Contemporary

in 71st Berlinale – International Film Festival, Berlin

by Hossein Eidizadeh

Ramon Zürcher and Silvan Zürcher’s The Girl and the Spider (Das Mädchen und die Spinne, 2021) starts with flat monitor screen showing a house plan, as a cursor moves over it and prints it. It is only fifteen minutes later that Mara (Henriette Confurius) tells how suddenly this PDF file was distorted for a moment—she describes it as beautiful—and how after one simple closing and reopening of the file, it was back to normal. The Girl and the Spider is the story of a normal life suddenly distorted. Though little information is given to us in this stingy film (yes, less is more!), we realize that Mara and Lisa used to live together, and there is a hint that their friendship was something more than just two girlfriends living together. Apparently, Lisa has fallen in love with a man and is moving out, and Mara is on the edge. During two days and one night we observe how different people involved in this moving process react to little nuisances, and it feels like a tragedy is looming.

Like The Strange Little Cat (Das merkwürdige Kätzchen, 2013), Ramon Zürcher’s previous film, the camera rarely moves; it stands still in front of characters moving left and right, sometimes only parts of their body—usually their legs—filling the frame, and when we see their close-ups—unless it’s of the back of their heads—we sense anxiety in every little change of the pupils of their eyes. One can say The Girl and the Spider is a story of people dealing with different levels of anxiety, and Mara’s level of anxiety is so high that it won’t be surprising if she kills someone—and to tell you the truth, the film cleverly plays with this anticipation.

These ideas of changing house and anxiety are what make the film a covert COVID-19 drama. It was/is during the COVID-19 pandemic that many couples, flatmates and friends realized/realize that they couldn’t/cannot bear each other and separated/separate. And there is no need to say that the level of anxiety has recently surged due to the fear of contracting the virus, illness, and death. The Girl and the Spider uses these COVID-19 concepts to deal with two more classical tragedy elements: madness and envy. Like a play written by Sophocles or Shakespeare, here we are following a tragedy about a mad, envious young woman who cannot tolerate anything going against her desire. The blister on her upper lip, her obsession with the wound on her fingernail, and the final wine cup scene, introduce Mara as a stepsister of Medea or Lady Macbeth, someone who may go all the way to get what she wants. However, we are not roaming in the fields of tragedy here, as the Zürcher brothers have a very subtle sense of humor—think about all the scenes with the dog who loves the sponge, the rainy night and the old lady on the roof scene, and the funny web of relationships that bloom between characters while packing and unpacking. Watching the film, you may wonder whether you have seen all these technicalities—still camera shots, minimalistic editing, introverted characters—before; and yet the film feels so unique and fresh. Why? I suppose it is the result of Zürchers’ humor, which in its own turn stems from unpredictability of the characters’ behavior and actions.

The Girl and the Spider is one of those films that at first glance seems banal and boring, but it only takes few minutes for a serious viewer to realize that under the façade of this very hygienic film—everything in it is so bright, colorful and clean—lurks a volcanic, yet hilarious tendency towards violence that is so contemporary, so lockdown-oriented, and so humane. The Girl and the Spider is story of a friendship/love which is suddenly distorted and then returns to normal, exactly like the house plan PDF file that is beautiful when it is normal, or distorted, or even when it is soaked in wine.

Hossein Eidizadeh
Edited by Robert Horton