One of my favorite movements of the 20th century in cinema was the emergence of the Czech New Wave. Out of this creative period, which lasted from roughly 1962 through 1970, the film world was introduced to such innovative filmmakers as Milos Forman (Loves of a Blonde, 1964), Ivan Passer (Intimate Lighting, 1965), Jiri Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, 1966), Vera Chytilova (Daisies, 1966) and Jan Nemec (A Report on the Party and the Guests, 1966). In recent years, other Czech directors have been reappraised and elevated in stature thanks to the proliferation of DVD and Blu-ray restorations of such movies as The Sun in a Net (1961) by Stefan Uher, Pavel Juracek’s Case for a Rookie Hangman (1970) and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders from Jaromil Jires (1970). We can now add to that list The Cremator (1969), Juraj Herz’s macabre fable, which is finally being recognized as one of the key films from the Czech New Wave.
The Cremator doesn’t comfortably fit into any specific genre. Some critics have labeled it as a black comedy but unlike the gallows humor of something like Arsenic and Old Lace or The Loved One, there is nothing that provokes easy laughter or even a chuckle. The film certainly qualifies as a horror film but Herz prefers to treat the monstrous things that occur in an almost banal, matter-of-fact way that makes the treatment even more grotesque. You could also say The Cremator is an atypical melodrama that functions as a pathological character study except that the intimate and relentless interior dialogue of the main character has a hypnotic effect that effectively anesthetizes a sense of outrage.
The narrative charts the rise of Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky) from his position as a worker in a crematorium to a high-ranking official in the National Socialist Party where his demented ideology helps escalate the “Final Solution.” Even though the film is set in Prague during the 1930s and presents an ominous pre-Holocaust scenario, Czech audiences who first saw the film in 1969 also recognized The Cremator as a cautionary tale about the dangers of authoritarian regimes. The film was immediately banned, of course, because the release followed the Russian invasion of Prague that previous spring.
Herz’s film has a surreal, dream-like quality that first establishes Karl as a seemingly benign, middle class family man. He has a wife, Lakme (Vlasta Chramostova), and a teenage daughter and son, Zina (Jana Stehnova) and Mili (Milos Vognic). Karl takes pride in his work and has ambitions of growing his client base through the help of his Jewish friend Strauss (Jiri Lir). But even from the beginning something is amiss with Karl when we see him on a family outing at the zoo. Aspects of his physical characteristics are juxtaposed with close-ups of various wild animals and the effect is detached and clinical like Karl’s own world view.
Jerz makes a point of presenting his protagonist as highly cultured with a love of classic music, art and literature – one of his favorite tomes is The Tibetan Book of the Dead. But quirky personal idiosyncrasies begin to emerge such as his obsession with other people’s health, his own disdain for smoking and drinking and passing judgment on fellow coworkers. He professes to be totally faithful to his wife but visits a brothel on a regular basis and is being treated for VD by his doctor. When Reinke, a former comrade from World War I, pays Karl a visit, he begins pressuring his friend to join the rising political movement and eventually to spy on his friends and neighbors, many of them Jewish.
Despite the film’s stylized visual treatment, which often utilizes fish-eye lens close-ups of Karl’s moon-shaped face and large head, The Cremator is very accessible to mainstream audiences in search of something different. It is also mysterious and enigmatic enough to please the more demanding art-house patron with offbeat narrative threads involving the specter of a dark-haired woman whom only Karl appears to see and a constantly squabbling husband and wife who provide a manic contrast to Karl’s embalmed marriage.
The first hour of The Cremator establishes a sinister vibe as Karl becomes convinced that he has been chosen for a greater cause. “Suffering is a great evil and we must do all we can to alleviate it,” he is fond of saying but it soon becomes clear that the crematorium worker has some definite ideas about who is suffering and how he is going to remedy that situation. In one of several scenes that foreshadow what is to come, Karl observes his wife decorating their Christmas tree and remarks, “Angel, you look so radiant. What if I hang you up amongst all these lovely things?” Never has a compliment sounded so chilling.
It isn’t until the final half hour that The Cremator descends into pure horror as Karl becomes a “mercy killer,” fantasizing about the vast numbers of ovens needed to ease the suffering of so many. His madness reaches a peak as he begins to receive otherworldly visits from his own double who tells him, “Tibet, our blessed homeland, awaits its ruler. That wall that restricted your vision has fallen. The skies are clear, the stars are above us, you will save the world. You are Buddha.”
There are so many casually shocking images that will stay with you long after the film is over; a scene in which Karl’s housekeeper enters the bathroom with a hammer to murder a pair of carp swimming in the tub for the family’s holiday meal; a shot of the pet cat pulling on the shoelaces of a hanging corpse; a ghostly montage of Karl’s victims dropping into a bottomless pit; Karl absent-mindedly combing the hair of a cadaver and then combing his own.
There is really nothing to prepare you for the way Juraj Herz transports you into the bizarre, maniacal world of Karl Kopfrkingl. It is interesting to note that Herz did not set out to become a film director. Instead he was trained in puppetry arts like his contemporary Jan Svankmajer and from there he gravitated toward the theater, directing plays at Prague’s Semafor Theatre and later worked as an assistant director at Barrandov studios. You can see strong evidence of Herz’s puppet training in a particularly creepy sequence in The Cremator that is set in a waxworks exhibit of famous murderers. The fact that the mannequins are actually played by actors covered in wax gives it a particularly ghoulish quality. An equally disturbing scene follows as Karl wanders about a room of medical oddities including pickled Siamese twins in jars and other deformities. In some ways the scene prefigures some of the startling imagery seen in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980).
One of the chief virtues of The Embalmer is Rudolf Hrusinsky’s performance in the title role. With a face that can appear both beatific and quietly deranged, he would be completely laughable in other circumstances where his greasy comb-over hair and pudgy physique could be used to comic effect. Instead he becomes as menacing as Peter Lorre in M or Laird Cregar in Hanover Square. Although The Cremator is often hailed as Hrusinsky’s greatest performance, he was incredibly prolific with more than 200 film and TV productions to his credit. He was particularly famous for his comic roles in movies like The Good Soldier Schweik (1957) and Capricious Summer (1967) but was equally adapt as playing detectives (Fear, 1964), police inspectors (The Murderer Hides His Face, 1966) and bureaucratic officials (90 Degrees in the Shade, 1965).
Other cast members who stand out in The Cremator are Vlasta Chramostove in the dual roles of the local prostitute Dagmar and Kopfrkingl’s passive but fearful wife. Jana Stehnova as the daughter has a dark, luminous beauty not unlike the young Susan Strasberg and her final scene, trying to escape her maniacal father in a room full of coffins, provides a powerful segue to the climax. Milos Vognic is also perfect as the nerdy son with his thick glasses, gawky body and naivete that condemn him as an undesirable in the eyes of the Germans.
The stunning black and white cinematography of Stanislav Milota and the quick-cut editing of Jaromir Janacek in some scenes create an unsettling ambiance that is part fairy tale, part nightmare. The opening credit sequence, which uses animation employing photographic cut-ups of faces and nude body parts, further enhances the surrealistic tone. And all of it is scored to music by Zdenek Liska that has an almost operatic, spiritual quality distinguished by a female vocalist and chorus.
I first saw The Cremator in a digitally restored print from the UK based distributor Second Run DVD. The disc included an insightful essay by writer/producer Daniel Bird and an introduction by Timothy and Stephen Quay, identical twin brothers who are well known for their unique mix of stop-motion animation and live action in films like Street of Crocodiles (1986) and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (2005).
In April 2020 The Criterion Collection released a DVD/Blu-ray upgrade of The Cremator with a wealth of outstanding extra features such as a documentary on composer Zdenek Liska, an archival interview with Rudolf Hrusinsky from 1993 and The Junk Shop, Juraj Herz’s 1965 debut short film. Highly recommended. Other websites of interest: