The Film That Won Peter Capaldi an Oscar

Our short film fanclub takes a look at Franz Kafka's It's A Wonderful Life - the project that made Peter Capaldi an Oscar-winner...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

With the 2019 Oscars upon us this weekend, it seems the perfect time to revisit an early Peter Capaldi project, and remember that not only is he a former Doctor and one of our finest actors, he’s also an Oscar-winning director. In 1995, long before the TARDIS, long before Malcolm Tucker, and long before most people had any idea who he was, Peter Capaldi directed the acclaimed short film Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life.

The 23-minute short stars Richard E. Grant (who later appeared in Doctor Who alongside Capaldi’s predecessor Matt Smith) as the author Franz Kafka as he tries to write one of his most famous stories, The Metamorphosis. The novella begins with the line “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” but when we join Grant he is in the iron grip of writer’s block, unable to find a satisfactory final word for this sentence.

The tone of the short is melodramatic and gothic from the start, with a nervy classical soundtrack from Philip Appleby adding to the feeling of fear and anxiety. There are also stylistic similarities to the greats of gothic cinema, with an establishing model shot reminiscent of Tim Burton’s architectural ideals and interiors that evoke the sharp lines and high-contrast lighting of German Expressionism.

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Although the visual style is heavy and oppressive, the content of Capaldi’s script is, more often than not, darkly humorous. For example, Kafka considers then dismisses ‘banana’ and ‘kangaroo’ as options to complete his opening sentence, images which Capaldi uses as an opportunity for some bizarre cutaways.

Throughout the short, Kafka’s attempts to complete his story are frustrated in a similar fashion to Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie. In that film, a group of friends’ attempts to dine together are interrupted by a succession of odd events, but here Kafka is plagued by the interruptions of his neighbours. First is Ken Stott as the sinister Woland the Knifeman, who has lost “his little friend”, then Elaine Collins (the real-life Mrs Capaldi) and Phyllis Logan, who distract him with party noise and fancy-dress insect costumes respectively.

The surreal humor is a perfect tribute to Kafka’s writing style and it’s also the ideal way to handle a mash-up as strange as that between The Metamorphosis and It’s A Wonderful Life. There are nods and references for fans of Franz – like the fact Kafka often abbreviates his characters surnames to things like Josef K. – but the plot works equally well without any prior knowledge of either work.

read more: The Weird Places It’s A Wonderful Life Has Turned Up

The influence of It’s A Wonderful Life, that most heart-warming of Christmas classics, arrives only at the finale, as the tone shifts from unrelenting misery to redemption and hope. With Kafka fearing he’s about to be killed, his life and his happiness are salvaged by his neighbours, who arrive to bring him gifts and encouragement. They sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” just like at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life, before Capaldi masterfully switches the tone again to an unusual rendition of “Sweet Mystery Of Life,” which is somehow even more moving than the previous song.

Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life is a fascinating realisation of the over-active imagination of a writer, where the action plays out like a visual representation of his psyche. Richard E. Grant is superb as the tortured writer, so riddled by anxieties he shudders through scenes like a stop-motion marionette. Most of all, this short shows that Peter Capaldi isn’t just a great Doctor, he’s a great director as well. 

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