The Cremator/Spalovac mrtvol (1968 Czechoslovakia 87 mins)

Prod Co: Filmové Studio Barrandov/Sebor Dir: Juraj Herz Scr: Juraj Herz, Ladislav Fuks, based on the novel by Fuks Phot: Stanislav Milota Ed: Jaromír Janácek Prod Des: Zbynek Hloch Mus: Zdenek Liska

Cast: Rudolf Hrusínský, Vlasta Chramostová, Jirí Menzel, Ilja Prachar, Jana Stehnová, Milos Vognic

Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1968) has only recently begun to receive the attention it so clearly deserves. Although unquestionably part of the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, Herz has never been as well known as his contemporaries such as Milos Forman, Jirí Menzel and Ivan Passer, and the film is rarely mentioned in the same breath as The Shop on the High Street (Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, 1965), Closely Observed Trains (Menzel, 1966) or The Fireman’s Ball (Forman, 1967). This marginalisation is perhaps partly due to Herz’s training as a puppeteer, rather than a live action filmmaker, a fact which at times comes through in The Cremator and aligns his work more with that of his friend and collaborator, Jan Svankmajer, than with more mainstream New Wave directors like Forman or Menzel.

Furthermore, The Cremator came at precisely the wrong time. Herz began the film during the short-lived period of liberalisation in 1968 know as the “Prague Spring”, during which Czech filmmakers enjoyed unprecedented, if not total artistic freedom. However, shooting was not yet complete when the Soviet clampdown came in August of that year. Working quickly, the film was finished and released, albeit briefly, before the Soviets regained their hold over the Czech film industry. It was then promptly banned and soon forgotten.

Seeing the film now, it is not difficult to see why it was suppressed. This story of a cremator, Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský), who approaches his job with a fanatical zeal, believing that he is releasing the souls of the dead from their bodies for reincarnation, is clearly allegorical. Set in the late 1930s, around the time of Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland and subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia, Kopfrkingl’s talent and passion for cremation are soon put to good use by the Nazis in the film’s chilling finale, after he has sent his half-Jewish wife and son complacently to their deaths. However, this invading totalitarian force is only ever referred to as “The Party”, an ambiguity not lost on Soviet censors. Indeed, the cloud of impending reprisals hangs heavily, but justifiably, over the film, which frequently mentions “martial law” and “privileges for party members”. Furthermore, by making direct reference to “15 March 1939”, the date on which Czechoslovakia officially ceased to exist after Hitler’s Blitzkrieg claimed Bohemia and Moravia, the script even anticipates the events of August 20th and 21st, 1968, when the Soviet tanks entered Prague.

In terms of its political allegory, The Cremator is very much in keeping with dominant trends of the Czech New Wave. The equating of the Communist party with the Nazis was not unusual; indeed, Menzel (who appears in The Cremator as Dvorak, Kopfrkingl’s chain-smoking assistant) did the same in Closely Observed Trains and, like the protagonist of The Shop on the High Street, the opportunistic Kopfrkingl enters into a kind of Faustian pact with “The Party”. Its jet-black comedy and sense of the surreal are not anomalous either. What sets the work apart, however, and places it at the peripheries of the New Wave, is the way it combines these elements to create a relentlessly nightmarish horror film.

The film was based on the 1967 novel by Ladislav Fuks, which Herz claims he was “disappointed” by (1). Regardless of this fact, he contacted the author and the two collaborated on the script, which remains notably faithful to the original. The film not only leaves most of the novel’s narrative and chronology intact, it also preserves Fuks’ technique of using Kopfrkingl as his primary focaliser. Although narrated in the third person, the reader only sees what Kopfrkingl does and follows him in his decent into madness. One of the film’s major achievements is finding a visual equivalent for Fuks’ literary descriptions of a degenerating mind.

Herz’s has described The Cremator as an “expressionistic” (2) horror film, which echoes The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919) in its subjective visualising of the mind of a madman. Stylistically, use of wide-angle lenses, deep focus cinematography, subliminal cuts and virtuoso scene transitions recall Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) in their flair and playfulness. However, the content of the film does not fall foul of stylistic excess. Rather, the two complement each other. For example, in the pre-credit scene at the zoo, Herz, his cinematographer, Stanislav Milota, and his editor, Jaromír Janácekm, quickly juxtapose extreme close-ups of parts of the caged animals with ones of Kopfrkingl himself (such as an elephant’s trunk with the wrinkles on Kopfrkingl’s forehead). This and the distorted shot of his “perfect family” in the mirror (the first of many uses of a “fish-eye” lens) provide the visual template for what it to follow and give the audience their first hints of the fractured nature of Kopfrkingl’s mind.

As the eponymous cremator, Rudolf Hrusinsky is in every scene of the film and provides Czech cinema with one of its most memorable, and disturbing, characterisations. Diminutive, paunchy and soft-spoken, Kopfrkingl at first seems unremarkable. However, his eccentricities soon set him apart. A romantic, if not a sentimentalist, he dotes on his family and pet, and speaks passionately about music (he even calls his wife Lakmé, after the heroine of Delibes’ opera). He is abstemious and forever lecturing others on the perils of tobacco, alcohol and drugs. Indeed, as his speech at his wife’s funeral confirms, there is more than a touch of Hitler about Kopfrkingl – he is even a veteran of the Great War.

Finally, although it is Herz’s masterpiece, The Cremator is not a perfect film. Some may find its allegory a little heavy-handed and audiences, by Herz’s own admission, react violently to the film’s shifts in tone between black comedy and psychological horror (3). However, it is these shifts in tone and the film’s seeming bad taste that make it important and ripe for rediscovery. It is a film which confronts, in all its horror, the Czech experience of totalitarianism – the Nazi occupation, the Holocaust (which Herz, a Jew, survived) and (with hindsight at least) the Soviet clampdown of 1968 – but it also does so with a “you have to laugh” mentality that is a defining, even unique, feature of Eastern European cinema.

Endnotes

  1. Ivana Košulicová, “Drowning the Bad Times: Juraj Herz interviewed”, Kinoeye: New Perspectives on European Film, vol. 2, no. 1, 7 January 2002.
  2. Košulicová.
  3. Košulicová.

About The Author

Brian Hoyle is a Lecturer in Film Studies and English Literature at the University of Dundee. His PhD and main area of research centre on British art cinema from the 1970s to the present, including the films of Derek Jarman.