Tomas Katz

German audiences sat transfixed in the rain to watch a strange black-and-white, subtitled film set in London, but its prospects in Britain are gloomy, explains director Ben Hopkins
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The Independent Culture

The rain falls on the canopy above the bar, droplets streak through the projector beam that stretches across the park, Thomas [Fisher, the lead actor] and I stand in the dry and sign autographs, and the guy in the mac tells us this is the fifth time that he's seen our movie.

We're in Berlin for a screening of our film The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz, an unusual black comedy about the apocalypse in London. The film begins with a strange man crawling out of a manhole by the M25, passes through a series of surreal sequences in which the fabric of London gradually unravels, and ends with the disappearance of the universe. On the way, we are presented with whispering windows, singing bollards, a Tube system full of the souls of the dead, and a TV talkshow featuring a dead rabbi.

We shot this dark, nonsensical comedy back in 1999. Since then it's become a cult hit in Germany – it's been running in Berlin for six months solid, and the distributors have flown us over to present the film at the 1,000-seater open-air cinema. The rain started to fall in the film's final reel, but the audience remained stoically until the end.

As the brief synopsis above suggests, it's not a "normal" British film. Neither was my first film, Simon Magus, a magic realist tale of a mentally troubled outcast in a Polish Jewish village at the end of the 19th century.

On paper, of the two films, Magus is the more "commercial"; it's in colour, it has a clear dramatic narrative and has names: Ian Holm, Rutger Hauer, Noah Taylor... But it's Tomas Katz which has gone down a storm across the North Sea. And Katz, it must be said is (a) black and white, (b) subtitled, (c) quite experimental and certainly very strange. I always thought it had an audience – otherwise, I wouldn't have made it – but I am astonished that the German audience and the film have found each other so successfully.

The first time Tomas Katz played in Germany was in the festival of Hof. Hof is a small town just north of Bayreuth, and an unlikely place for a film festival. In 1968, the film-makers of Germany boycotted the Oberhausen festival because the town authorities banned one of their films; a reactionary move that, in those revoltionary times, was not to be tolerated. A young projectionist called Heinz Badewitz suggested that they all go and play their films at his rundown cinema in the nowhere-town of Hof. Everyone agreed, including a certain young film-maker called Rainer Maria Fassbinder, and, 30 years later, Badewitz presides over the now well-established festival.

It was here that, after a boozy meal, the small, young distribution firm of Piffl Medien, decided, after tossing a coin, to go and see my film. At first they were perplexed by it, but gradually, as the audience slowly began to shake with rather unteutonic laughter, they realised that maybe this was a film worth buying for the German market. Since then, they have been tireless in promoting the film, finding inventive and clever ways of marketing it, helping the film to find its core young, alternative audience.

Back in Britain, the story is somewhat different: the film was turned down by all the UK distributors, and I am forced to release the film myself. Not that I was surprised by this: I always knew that Tomas Katz was a hard sell, that it would take a creative and energetic and risk-taking company to release the film, but none came forward. In fact, they seemed to flee from the film in terror – in one screening, most of them left in the first 15 minutes.

Of course, the film is also a hard sell in Germany; any black-and-white subtitled film is, anywhere. But the Germans have the luxury of a network of cinemas throughout their country: "arthouse" screens that play to distinct communities; cinemas that have their own loyal audiences. Our film played at some 110 different locations around Germany. In the small town of Ochsenfurt, Katz was a smash hit with the local youth; in Munich and Stuttgart, hardly anyone came. It's a local thing, depending on local taste, on local papers, websites, indeed, on chance. But the distributors can rely on this network to get films "out there".

It's a shame that in Britain, for most people, there is simply no alternative. Like many others in this country, I want to make films for an adventurous, discerning public that I know is out there. The more outré UK films like mine have to fight with all the foreign-language films for that tiny five per cent of the cinema screens that are not run by the corporations.

At the moment, it's easier for me to sell my weird, black-and-white apocalyptic comedy to the schoolkids of a Bavarian market town than it is to the sophisticates of London. And that strikes me as a bit odd.

The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz (15) is showing at the National Film Theatre, SE1 (020 7928 3232) and Metro, W1, (020 7437 0757), to 2 August; UK showings follow in the autumn. More details on www.tomas-katz.com

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