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DIRECTED BY: Ben Hopkins
FEATURING: Tom Fisher, Ian McNiece, Will Keen, Tony Maudsley
PLOT: On the day of a rare solar eclipse, a stranger with the ability to switch places with others arrives in London. His identity-swapping and subsequent trouble-making have an immediate impact on the natural order of things. A police inspector suspects that the disappearance of the Astral Child That Represents Existence may be responsible for the strange happenings and interrogates the spirits in an attempt to stave off disaster.
WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Combining stark surrealism, a heightened and aching sense of dread, and a heaping dollop of British absurdism, The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz has a profoundly distinctive point of view—there’s a perverse thrill in the way the film not only accepts its incongruities but relies upon a relentless commitment to them.
COMMENTS: Tomas Katz – whose name might in fact be “No” – has a ready answer to a casual question about what he does for a living: “I cut people open to find out where their dreams lurk.” What he doesn’t say is that he knows the ugly truth about most of those dreams: they are fractured or forever out of reach or consigned to the dustbin of memory. And this is the day when Tomas Katz will resolve all of those dreams by ending the world.
If The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz could be said to have a theme, it is that the world is simultaneously ridiculous and tragic. For a movie ostensibly about the end of everything, there’s not much concern about the actual end. It all seems pretty messed up, and usually in a pretty amusing way. We’ve got war, but it’s declared by the Minister for Fisheries against a country with a silly name. We’ve got financial calamity, but it’s brought about by an angelic choir. We even have the mass of humanity marching to Gehenna, but that just turns out to be the last stop on the London Underground. It’s nihilism with a smile, a sweet-smelling hangover.
The world into which No enters, which is primarily London as encompassed by the M25 motorway, is one where Britain’s famous stiff upper lip has metastasized into a blend of habit and ennui. Londoners are trained to silently endure the wait for their train, so when an announcement informs them that their trip will be delayed to accommodate the souls of the dead, there’s barely a perceptible change in tone. Similarly, the deployment of a tuning fork that kills all children on national television might seem destined to arouse anger and protest, but broadcasters know just how to smooth over the ruffled feathers: “The BBC would like to apologize for the widespread destruction and loss of infant life.” It’s not that the world will end with a whimper, but just that nobody wants to make a fuss.
There may be no better synthesis of the mood of Tomas Katz than a sequence where No encounters a boy bemoaning his fate: he has no friends, and his Tamagotchi died just that morning. The scene turns into a silent film, complete with wailing strings and ornate title cards. “The tamagotchis will be freed from their cages,” No assures the boy, “and all will be released.” Then he swaps places with the boy and experiences all the highs and lows of childhood, the joy and the cruelty, the pleasure and pain. It’s not too hard to understand why No feels tremendous pity for the doomed human race, and why he’s simultaneously content to burn it all down.
Tomas Katz is a genuinely funny movie, but it’s an especially English kind of funny, Britbox with bite. Consider the rabbi whom the BBC has called in to offer his wisdom to the nation despite the inconvenience of having been dead for two years. Or perhaps the police report of a window conspiracy, which is an amusing combination until we actually get to see it play out. In fact, the tone shifts so widely that the film could easily be called The Nine Films of Tomas Katz, yet it never loses its focus or its bleak humor.
For a small-scale, microbudget endeavor, Tomas Katz plays big. Huge credit goes to lead Tom Fisher, who embraces the chance to play multiple characters with a unique blend of sympathy and savagery. Kudos also to Ian McNiece, whose fearful police inspector manages to find drama and pathos in connections that make no logical sense. And a special shout-out to Dominik Scherrer’s diverse and adaptable score, which encompasses opera, techno, klezmer, Klaus Nomi, patriotic marches, and more.
Fittingly, it isn’t No who brings about the end of the world. He hands that honor to a security guard named Dave, whom he identifies as “the most vacuous being in the universe.” (Dave doesn’t seem too put out by this.) We will ultimately be the agent of our own demise, it turns out. The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz shows what that grand finale will look like if we all just keep calm and carry on.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“This has to be one of the strangest films of the year, a weird apocalyptic vision shot in the most mundane of London surroundings, with all too obvious budgetary constraints pushed asunder by the sheer energy of the director’s imagination.” – George Perry, BBC (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by “Phantar.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)