The Cremator, only Juraj Herz’s second film, was adapted from a novel by Ladislav Fuks. It was well received, won a few awards, and was promptly banned for two decades until the fall of Czech communism. Audiences at the time had varied reactions: some saw it as a comedy and laughed the whole way through. In other circles it played as a depressive horror show. Watching it today, we can have it both ways: a Dr. Strangelove-esque satire on the meticulousness of murder, and a deep-dive exploration into the banalities of Evil.
* * *
There’s something deliciously Nabokovian within the fabric of Juraj Herz’s 1969 black comedy masterpiece The Cremator. Perhaps it’s the supremely dark subject matter – a passionate cremator drawn into collaboration with the Nazis – handled in such a playful, precise way. Or it may be the man himself, Karl Kopfrkingl, portrayed by Rudolf Hrušínský as an almost Humbert Humbert figure – obsessive, refined, cloying, sinister, full of charm. A warped moralizer who doesn’t drink or smoke – in fact he’s constantly stubbing out other people’s cigars. Death is his occupation, and he plies his trade at the crematorium with delicate poetry. “Premature death is a blessing,” he says, “only if it liberates a person from suffering.” He carries a Tibetan Book of the Dead and speaks longingly of reincarnation, transfixed by the idea that the soul itself wishes to be free from the body’s physical cage. To return to dust it takes “twenty years in the ground, but seventy-five minutes in a crematorium.”
After the innovations of the Nouvelle Vague burst out of France in the late ’50s/early ’60s, various other New Waves cropped up throughout Europe. In Czechoslovakia, their version borrowed the energetic editing of the French, while still maintaining a narrative cohesion. Herz himself was a Holocaust survivor, having been imprisoned in a concentration camp as a child. At university he studied directing as well as puppetry, which somehow reveals itself in the expressive downward angles of certain shots – all we’re missing are the strings.
The Cremator, only his second film, was adapted from a novel by Ladislav Fuks. It was well received, won a few awards, and was promptly banned for two decades until the fall of Czech communism. Audiences at the time had varied reactions: some saw it as a comedy and laughed the whole way through. In other circles it played as a depressive horror show. Watching it today, we can have it both ways: a Dr. Strangelove-esque satire on the meticulousness of murder, and a deep-dive exploration into the banalities of Evil.
The setting is 1930s Prague, with tension in the air as Hitler began his collection of smaller countries. “How can you think of morphine with foreign troops at the border?” But also important to note – important to Kopfrkingl – is that the death of the 13th Dalai Lama had just occurred in 1933.
The film begins with the rapid-fire-edited images of a prowling leopard behind the bars of a zoo, while K’s voice-over reminisces to his wife and children. He speaks of how blessed – a favorite, almost neurotically used word in the film – he feels to have such a secure, happy family. We see a portrait of them warped in a round mirror. We see the children staring out grotesquely through the bars like wide-eyed gargoyles. Intercut between his words are extreme close-ups on his physical features (squinty eyes, wrinkled forehead) juxtaposed with the various animals at the zoo. The pulsing energy of the beasts within their cages seems to reflect the subliminal morbidity beneath K’s pleasant outer surface.
This frantic editing will continue throughout, alongside a certain choppiness to the rhythm of the film – as if sound and image are not quite in synch – creating a strange, ethereal, almost dreamlike quality, and giving the impression that the characters are adrift, walking on clouds. One scene bleeds into another, often with K talking directly to the camera only to pull back and reveal a new setting, or sometimes by focusing our attention at the end of a shot onto the movement of a prop (a picture frame of preserved flies, let’s say), which we realize has now become the beginning of a new shot.
K’s voice-over is omnipresent, and the haunting score that floats underneath only adds to the ominous gloom. The rest of the family can hardly get a word in. They nod, or else stare blankly in silence. Many of the images are taken from extreme angles or else distorted through the use of a fish-eye lens. We feel as if we’ve wandered into a surreal funhouse where death is everywhere: around the dinner table or at a party. When it can’t be found, Kopfrkingl seeks it out. At a carnival the zestful acrobats bore him, and so he drags the children off to a wax museum, where they reenact famous murders. By the lascivious look on his face, you’d think he’d taken them to a brothel. Elsewhere, he guides a new employee through the crematorium, and it’s like a placid tour of a gift shop in Hell.
There’s a definite creepiness to the movie, yes, but it’s not without humor. The teenage daughter has a boyfriend whom she brings along to dinner, and the father’s dislike of the boy is barely hidden beneath a condescending brow (Meet the Parents set during the Holocaust?).
A bumbling couple shows up from time to time, lending a little comic relief. Wherever they are the wife always becomes hysterical and the angry husband must drag her out. “I can’t even take you to a waxworks, you idiot!” These characters intrude upon K, who looks them over with disgust – as if they’ve wandered into the wrong type of movie and he knows it. At the end it’s the husband who has gone frantic, searching for his missing wife. Under fascist and communist rule, people did go missing. Maybe your neighbor upstairs, maybe someone you’ve known your whole life. She was correct to be frightened. This shift in tone is like an injection of dark realism into the vaudeville slapstick of the husband/wife duo.
The Nazis are used as villains, of course, but just as easily they can be seen as a scapegoat metaphor for the atrocities committed under Stalinism. The movie wasn’t banned without a reason. The 1968 Prague Spring – occurring just before the release of the film – was a mass political protest against the communist state that coincided with the rise and celebration of Czech culture, including their New Wave in cinema.
The cremator as a character is a man of contradictions. He refuses to kill the fish they’ll have for dinner, explaining that he “doesn’t enjoy it.” He considers himself a loyal family man, and yet goes to various prostitutes. He’s a paradox, but one that we’re quite accustomed to now. Hitler was a vegetarian, after all. Later in the film this duality will be presented in the form of his doppelgänger: a Tibetan monk (and it may be hard to tell, but the wife and prostitute are played by the same actress as well. Duality again.).
There’s a surreal scene at a wild club for Nazi party members where K is looked upon suspiciously for not drinking. He concedes nervously and tries a few sips in between his glass of water. His sad, round eyes are downcast at this compromise to his morals. He seems deflated, like a child at his birthday party whose expectations have been dashed.
The idea that we can feel a moment of sympathy for this monster is a testament to the complexity and nuance existing within even the most evil of characters. Below the table a laughing woman fellates a man drunk on champagne, and K can’t resist a few peeks underneath the tablecloth – another weird layer to this man peeled back.
The Nazis have enticed and lured him into their fold, and he begins to take pride in the possibility that he may even have some German blood himself. After being informed by an old war buddy that his beloved wife is secretly half Jewish – and thus his children have been tainted – he quickly accepts what must be done, and obviously his spiritually deranged views on death go hand in hand with that verdict. The climax of the film plays out with the inevitable rhythm of a nightmare – the calm meditation in his voice, the deliberate gestures as he performs his required task.
More than any other medium, film has the ability to conjure a mood, an atmosphere. Within the bureaucratic black-and-white world of offices, churches, and crematoriums that the story inhabits, somehow Kafka – another citizen of Prague – comes to mind. There he is – all his dark absurd surreal fatalism – in a wide, long, prisonlike shower, where a hanging will soon take place. One could picture cockroaches emerging at any moment across the clean, sterile, white tiles. There he is, in a startling close-up cut to the face of a fish about to be eaten – a shot that would have made Dali and Buñuel proud.
There’s more than a hint of necrophilia to Kopfrkingl’s obsession with death. In a room with a prostitute we get a lightning-quick flash to the grotesque faceless woman in the wax museum. Throughout the film he seems to notice a beautiful, pale, dark-haired woman appearing like a specter at the edges of his periphery. Is she dead? Is he frightened or attracted by her? In a crowd of people facing forward, she’s the lone figure turned the other way, gazing back at him. She seems to haunt his mind.
As the film ends, K is in the back seat of a car, being driven off to lend his expertise to the gas chambers. From the car’s back window we watch as the ghostly woman tries to follow – K watches too – before falling short and being left in the distance. He turns back around in his seat, letting her go. It’s as if the last vestiges of his conscience have finally been abandoned, and now he faces forward to the future as a blank slate, forward to the Final Solution.
* * *
Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the film’s DVD or trailers. As it happens, The Cremator is presently playing on Criterion’s streaming app as well as in a subtitled transfer on YouTube, embedded above.