It’s not that often that you see a film that literally makes you either smile ear to ear, see leaves you feeling gob smacked at it’s sheer brilliance and twists your brain into a frenzy as you try to grasp the ambitious story that’s playing out in front of your eyes – so you can imagine how rare it is to find a film that does not just one of these things, mind but all. The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz is such a film that from the moment I saw it in a cinema in Berlin in 2000 I was captivated by it. Strange however that when I returned to London some years later that no one had ever heard about it.
Shot in grainy black and white and set in London Tomas Katz is an apocalyptic comedy with strong visual elements heavily inspired by early German expressionist cinema with an original, pumping and eclectic soundtrack to go with it. Using as a backdrop, the eclipse that occurred in June of that year, the story begins with the arrival of tall, mysterious and gangly man who crawls out of the sewers legs first and hails cab on the M25. From this moment on you know you’re in for quite journey.
After searching for this film for many years and counting it in my all time “Top 10”, it was by pure chance that I spotted an advert while in the loo at the Curzon for a special screening followed by a Q & A with the director Ben Hopkins! I got myself to the screening and spent a few minutes with Ben to ask some questions.
What strikes me the most about this film is of course its originality and how it manages to tie in things we’re all so familiar with and it’s seemingly effortless ability to, at the same time; give a totally different spin on it. For example, the London Underground is presented here, not as a network for transporting daily commuters, but for taking the souls of people to the valley of the dead. Then of course, there are parts in the film that are rich with symbols and rituals that give you a sense of witnessing something magical, mystical. Ben explained that as a child his mother would tell him that nearby lived a giant. This was an attempt to keep the young Mr. Hopkins from wandering too far from the family home, but in effect what it did was jump start a wild and active imagination that would for many years keep him mesmerised by mythical and magical stories where even the simplest everyday things would have a life of their own; lampposts, windows, pavements and bollards.
How such a film came about, you may wonder. At the Q&A, Ben spoke about having first conceived the idea of the title ‘The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz’ and that it would feature his friend Thomas Fisher in nine different roles. Having grown up watching German cinema from the days of Fritz Lang and Nosferatu, he knew he would take inspiration from this genre to create, as he called it, “this bastard child of a film”! He would fill with mystical and magical elements from the Bible, Jewish traditions and Homer’s The Iliad for example. The same way the dead go to a valley outside of Jerusalem in ancient folklore, the same way they would in Tomas Katz, but outside of London. The dialog is both funny and cleverly written. When asked about how much of what was shot was left on the cutting room floor he replied that was very little cut out. What you see on the screen is more or less what was filmed. Mostly things like improvisations were cut, but it remained close to the script.
Filmed on a low budget, Ben went on to talk about how much of a struggle it was filming in and around London due to the high location costs. They would often have to drive around in a van, jump out and shoot the scene before anyone could figure out that they were filming there. Often it was a case of turning up with a smaller camera for scenes that were filmed in places like Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. The entire film was shot in 3 weeks.
In certain circles, Tomas Katz is a much talked about film, but rarely ever seen, so I asked why it took so long to finally get to this point where its being shown at the Curzon so many years after it was made. Ben smiled and commented on how this was a perfect chance for him to plug the DVD before going on to tell us that it was due to sheer bad luck with this film. Just as it was beginning to gather momentum in 2000, the distribution company went bust and the film dropped out of circulation. This would be why it was never picked up and why when I came back from Berlin no one had ever heard about this British movie that was filmed in London called The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz! It did quite well in Germany though where it had its world premiere in Bavaria. It played for almost a year and was seen by some 50 to 60 thousand people. It seems the Germans really took this movie to their hearts, well its no surprise considering there’s so much of German cinema in it!
Have a go and see what you think but I can guarantee that you’ll never think of the London Underground in the same way again! And look out for the scene where the television presenter seems to be ‘gripped’ by a stutter, its sheer brilliance that comes off so effortlessly in this little secret gem of a film.
The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz is now finally available on DVD together with Ben’s first feature film Simon Magus and one of his earlier short films National Achievement Day.
Many thanks to Curzon cinemas and to Ben Hopkins.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .