The Cremator

Director Juraj Herz was born on 4 September 1934 in Kežmarok, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). Interestingly, acclaimed Czech animator Jan Švankmajer was born on that very day. Although Herz attended the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (AMU) with directors such as Jaromil Jireš, Jiří Menzel, Evald Schorm and Věra Chytilová, he studied in the puppetry department with Švankmajer. (1) The other directors listed above, all of whom have become poster children for the Czechoslovak New Wave, were enrolled in the Filmová a Televizní Fakulta Akademie Múzkých Umění v Praze (Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague). In his interview with Ivana Košuličová, Herz suggests that he was looked down upon and excluded from the movement because he was considered “a puppet artist, not a film director” (2).

Today, Herz remains on the margins of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Monumental texts on the movement, such as Peter Hames’ The Czechoslovak New Wave and Antonín J. Liehm’s Closely Watched Films, offer little information on the director or his work. Nonetheless, as Josef Škvorecký asserts, Herz’s involvement in the Czechoslovak New Wave is indisputable. (3) His first film, Sberné surovosti (The Junk Shop), was featured in the original version of Perličky na dně (Pearls of the Deep, 1965), a collection of shorts which is commonly referred to as a manifesto for the diverse New Wave. (4) Impressively, Herz also served as an assistant director on Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ seminal, Academy Award-winning picture, Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street, 1965). Like many Czechoslovakian directors who came into prominence during the 1960s, he was involved with the Semafor Theatre as well. (5) Despite the fact that his connections with the Czechoslovak New Wave are commonly disregarded, Herz’s masterpiece Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968), sometimes referred to as The Cremator of Corpses, is an intelligent work of dramatic horror that far surpasses the genre’s connotations of kitsch, camp and senseless gore. In Czechoslovakia, it was one of the three best-attended art films of 1969, the post-invasion year. (6) While horrific, the film is highly complex and provides a great deal of valuable social commentary.

This essay will begin by analysing how The Cremator elicits psychological horror through its disorienting cinematography. It will then discuss the ways in which the film reflects trends in Nazi propaganda. Finally, it will comment on the much-overlooked indirectly subversive Æsopian messages pertaining to communism that the film directed towards Czechoslovakian audiences of the late 1960s.

Grotesque Psychological Horror and Cinematography

The deranged Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský), right, and his doomed family: Lakmé (Vlasta Chramostová), Mili (Milos Vognic) and Zina (Jana Stehnová)

Much of The Cremator’s ability to evoke feelings of horror can be attributed to its combination of expressionistic cinematography and gothic mise en scène. The atmosphere created by Stanislav Milota’s cinematography is simultaneously breathtaking and grotesque. Notably, Milota won the award for Best Cinematography at the 1972 Sitges International Film Festival of Catalonia in Spain – a festival devoted solely to fantasy films – for his work on The Cremator. Though The Cremator may use rapid cutting, extreme close-ups, subjective shots and fish-eye lenses “to excess”, the result is a frighteningly palpable breed of psychological horror. (8) The key to this horror is disorientation. The film itself is essentially a projection of the distorted consciousness of a professional cremator, Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský). Milota and Herz sustain an organic relationship between the film’s macabre content and expressionistic form throughout. As a result, they provide an authentic glimpse into the mind of an opportunistic madman. Their images evoke feelings of both nausea and terror.

The film’s opening segment, a fast-paced, intellectual montage that juxtaposes shots of Karl and his family with zoo animals, does a commendable job of preparing viewers for the remainder of the film. It leaves them with no misconceptions. The segment makes it clear that they are entering the mind of a deranged individual. For example, extreme close-ups of Karl’s face are juxtaposed with a lion’s eyes and a snake flicking its tongue. When Karl’s shifting eyes mimic the lion’s, and when the movement of his forehead reflects that of the slithering snake, the animalistic appetite hidden beneath his harmless exterior becomes apparent.

Herz and Milota’s use of extreme close-ups accentuate their film’s unsettling atmosphere. On one level, these shots serve to destroy the unbroken images seen in everyday life. In reality, without the use of some optical device, things can only be examined close-up by physically moving towards them. Objects such as human eyes and hands are not commonly observed magnified to the degree of the extreme close-up. On film, however, extreme close-ups can be thrown rapidly when viewers least expect them. Magnified body parts on screen are disturbing because they tamper with the continuity of the human form generally beheld during mundane life. When shown mere parts of the body, viewers are denied the unified whole which they desire. Such fragmented, magnified images thus enhance The Cremator’s ability to disorient its viewers. Extreme close-ups also help to distinguish the film as an external representation of Karl’s psyche. These shots typically appear to be subjective and selectively illustrate what Karl chooses to gaze at, and at times what he imagines. The subjective nature of these shots accentuates Karl’s voyeuristic gaze.

Near the end of the opening sequence, a subjective shot of Karl’s children, Mili (Milos Vognic) and Zina (Jana Stehnová), is captured from one of the caged animal’s perspectives. The children climb on a cage, but because of the perspective it looks as if they are encaged themselves. They growl like little beasts. The film cuts to a shot of Karl and his wife, Lakmé (Vlasta Chramostová). In this shot, the couple is in focus in the background, and the metal bars of a cage are out of focus in the foreground. The couple appears to be confined as well. At this point, Karl calmly remarks, “Come now, children […] cages are for animals.” Juxtaposed with one another, these cunningly ambiguous shots foreshadow that Karl and his family will be trapped within metaphoric cages in the future. Because Lakmé, Mili and Zina are Jewish, they are destined to be “confined” by Nazi ideology during the coming Holocaust. If Karl and his Nazi comrades do not dispose of them, they will surely be imprisoned in concentration camps. Karl’s hunger for success, which enables him to pervert his sense of morality and single-handedly decide the fate of his wife and children, is truly horrific. In the end, Lakmé and Mili are “saved” via death (at Karl’s own hands), locked in caskets and cremated. It is implied that Zina’s fate will be the same. One could feasibly argue that, despite his apparent fondness of the macabre, Karl is also victimized and shackled down by Nazi ideology.

The distorted fish-eye perspective is presented during this opening sequence as well. The first instance is a reflection of Karl and his family in a convex mirror. The shot that follows is taken with a fish-eye lens, which results in an equally distorted image. While Karl claims that they are a “decent, perfect family”, the shot betrays their true dysfunction. Similar hemispherical images occur numerous times during the film. At one point, Karl’s reflection is stretched across a glass Christmas ornament. While fish-eye shots are commonly thought to be cliché and kitschy, and are frowned upon in “art cinema”, The Cremator’s playful use of excess justifies their presence. Its fish-eye shots effectively link form to content and are never thrown in aimlessly for the sake of visual interest or flare. Reminiscent of funhouse mirrors, these shots successfully convey the warped nature of Karl’s mental landscape and his deranged familial relationship.

At the conclusion of this opening segment, a still photograph of Karl’s head fills the screen. The photograph is torn vertically down the centre, just as Karl is to be torn between remaining loyal to his family and succumbing to the Nazis and all they have to offer. Photographs of a number of the other characters’ faces appear in the credit sequence that follows. More important, however, are the credit sequence’s stop-frame collages of severed body parts. Feminine hands, arms, legs, buttocks and nude torsos pile up on screen. Like the extreme close-ups, these collages butcher the viewer’s conception of the human body in its entirety. These fragmented collections of females also resonate with Karl’s uncontrollable sexual desire and his tendency to objectify women. Interestingly, the title sequence also contains an extreme close-up of an actual fish’s eye. Though the carp that the eye belongs to appears later in the film, perhaps this shot is a conscious bit of meta-self-mockery in regards to the use of fish-eye lenses on the part of Herz or Milota. One can only guess.

In the words of the Quay brothers, The Cremator’s images function like “daggers to the eye” (9). This being said, jump cuts play an important role in immersing viewers within Karl’s demented consciousness. When Karl selects pictures to hang in his home, fast-paced shots depicting photographs of nude women appear on screen. As a result, viewers become aware of what pictures Karl chooses to focus on. After he returns home and hangs the Victorian painting he purchased for his wife in the bathroom, he gazes at it. Through the use of a jump cut, the painting becomes a photograph of a nude woman Karl saw back at the gallery. Another jump cut zooms in to an extreme close-up of the woman’s breasts. Viewers are allowed to see what Karl “sees”, or, more accurate, what he imagines. In these sudden, disorienting flashes, an alarmingly close psychological distance is achieved as Karl’s mental landscape is projected on screen.

A similar effect results when Karl and his family walk through a waxworks which exhibits brutal murders. While Lakmé and the children appear happy at the carnival, prior to entering the waxworks, Karl looks miserable with a sour expression on his face. It becomes clear, through subjective camera shots, that he simply stares at blonde women scattered about the carnival. Within the waxworks, however, Karl wears a devilish grin. The waxworks is eerie in its own right because the “wax” figures are obviously actors attempting to move with jerky motions, as if made of wax. After he calmly witnesses an exhibit featuring a woman being stabbed to death in a bathtub, Karl coldly comments on the “old fashioned baths”, claiming that their own “bathroom is nicer”. A jump cut to their sterile, white bathroom pops on screen directly after this comment. The image links the bathroom to murder, which is important because Karl eventually murders Lakmé there. It also illustrates Karl’s insensitivity towards death. While his family and the other carnival goers are clearly uncomfortable in the horrific waxworks, Karl thinks about his own mundane bathroom. It is apparent that working with dead bodies for so many years has desensitised him in regards to fatality, and ultimately to murder.

Jump cuts are used effectively once again when Karl identifies his co-workers as enemies of the Reich to the Nazis. Each time he names a co-worker, a quick shot reveals the individual’s face. This forces viewers to remain aware that they are experiencing Karl’s thoughts and puts a human face on those he discloses. Later, when Karl informs the Nazis of what went on at a Jewish gathering they instructed him to attend, the narrative becomes non-linear. Shots of what Karl actually saw and heard are interwoven with those revealing the lies he feeds to his new fascist comrades. This montage sequence uncovers Karl’s hypocritical, opportunistic nature by illustrating that the story he presents to the Nazis is not what actually occurred at the gathering. The narrative shifts back and forth between Karl praising Jewish music and denouncing Jews as threats to the Reich. It becomes apparent that Karl is simply a yes-man who tells his comrades exactly what they want to hear.

A final example of equally impressive cinematography is The Cremator’s unusual scene-to-scene transitions. As stated earlier, the film’s narrative is fragmented and follows Karl’s scattered consciousness. Scenes often end with reaction shots of Karl’s face. After he delivers a bit of dialogue pertaining to the previous scene, the camera zooms out and reveals that he is in an entirely new setting. The music flows from scene to scene without interruption so not to ruin this clever narrative trick. This sort of transition occurs when the film moves from the scene consisting of a party thrown by Karl at the crematorium to the scene in which he selects a picture for his house. At the end of the party scene, Karl is conversing with Lakmé. After Lakmé says, “I must call you Roman instead of Karl”, Herz cuts a close-up reaction shot of Karl’s face. Karl replies with “Because I’m a romantic and love beauty.” After his response, he looks away from the camera and his countenance changes. The camera zooms out slowly and unveils that Karl is now in the picture gallery. The result is jarring. The close psychological distance created by these transitions emphasizes that the film is a reflection of Karl’s own subjective narrative. In Karl’s narrative, rationality and continuity are often absent.

The Cremator’s composition deserves a much more in-depth discussion. It truly is a meticulously orchestrated film. It is an achieved, congruous blend of psychological horror and the blackest of comedies. While much of its cinematography is expressionistic, the party scene at the crematorium features many wonderfully realistic reaction shots in the spirit of Miloš Forman’s Lásky jedné plavovlásky (Loves of a Blonde, 1965). The film contains numerous playful yet ominous instances of foreshadowing that point to the metal bar as an instrument of murder, and Karl’s bathroom as the scene of Lakmé’s death. The Quay brothers note that the mysterious motif of a woman in black, who continually seems to offer Karl salvation, harks back to Ingmar Bergman’s Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957). Many aspects of the film seem to recall Alfred Hitchcock. For example, the seamless scene-to-scene transition achieved when Herz zooms in on Zina’s black dress and cuts to Karl’s black suit is reminiscent of Rope (1948). The Cremator’s expressionistic mise en scène is in the vein of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Robert Wiene, 1920). Its background music, written by Zdeněk Liška, who also wrote the equally impressive score for The Shop on Main Street, is an unforgettable combination of haunting chorals and upbeat tunes that fit the film perfectly because they do not seem to fit at all.

The Cremator and Nazi Propaganda

As Peter Hames notes in his book, The Czechoslovak New Wave, the production of Jewish themed films such as The Cremator, The Shop on Main Street, Jiří Weiss’ Romeo, Julie a tma (Romeo, Juliet and Darkness, 1960), and Zbyněk Brynych’s Transport z ráje (Transport from Paradise, 1963) was made possible due to the liberalization of Czechoslovakia’s cultural policy from the early 1960s to the end of the Prague Spring. (10) Jan Němec’s Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964) should be included in this group as well. Through films related to World War II and the Holocaust, Czechoslovakian directors were able to address both the individual’s relationship with history and the issue of individual morality.

While The Cremator’s disorienting cinematography and nauseating plot account for much of the film’s horrific effect, its ability to sicken and terrify is aided by the fact that, in hindsight, viewers know that the events it leads up to actually occurred. If the Holocaust is only a vehicle for vocational advancement in Karl’s mind, a dream detached from reality, it is the most sombre historical happening viewers can recollect. Herz has stated that his Zastihla me noc (Night Caught up with Me, 1986), a film influenced by his own experiences at Ravensbrück concentration camp at age ten, is his “greatest horror” because it is a “real horror” (11). Herz’s latter comment undoubtedly applies to The Cremator. It is an urgently real horror. The film’s reality-based horror is accentuated by Herz’s inclusion of thematic trends derived from both Nazi ideology and propaganda.

One of these trends is Nazi solidarity. In his text on film propaganda, Richard Taylor states that “German National Socialism centered upon a faith in the virtues of organic nationhood under the slogan ‘One people! One Reich! One Führer!’” (12) Walter Reineke (Ilja Prachar), The Cremator’s leading Nazi, best embodies this concept in the film. It is Reineke who continually stresses the importance of joining the Party to Karl.

In addition to emphasizing the unification of Germany and the pristine quality of its inhabitants, Nazi propaganda also features clearly defined enemies of National Socialism: the Jews. Taylor cites Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew, 1940) as existing among the “most virulent” of anti-Semitic propaganda films ever produced (13). In this film, as is the case with the majority of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda films, Jews are characterized as barbaric leeches who attach themselves to “civilized European society” in order to exploit it “parasitically” (14). The Eternal Jew’s own commentary states that, “Whenever a sore shows itself on the body of a people, they [the Jews] settle themselves firmly and feed on the decaying organism” (15). Keeping this commonly propagated idea in mind, Karl’s comment that the Jewish Dr. Bettleheim “makes a lot of money, thanks to other people’s misfortunes” gains a great deal of significance (ironically, Karl earns a living based on other’s misfortunes as well) (16). While Karl initially feels that Dr. Bettleheim is a respectable man, after being spoon-fed Nazi ideology he comes to see his Jewish friend as a blood-sucking leech.

Jews are also equated with rats in anti-Semitic propaganda films. As a result, they represent sickness and the spread of diseases such as the “plague, leprosy, typhoid, cholera, dysentery, etc” (17). The Eternal Jew highlights this by stating that Jews “find their business among the diseases of the people, and for this reason they do their utmost to increase and perpetuate every form of sickness” (18). It goes on to say that Jews accounted for 98 percent of the world’s prostitution in the year 1932 (19). Having grown up in East Central Europe and experienced the Holocaust first-hand, Juraj Herz no doubt became painfully familiar with the Nazi’s propagandistic techniques. It is clearly no accident that The Cremator reflects the Nazi’s idea that disease – i.e., the impure Jews – is the greatest threat to Karl’s well-being.

The Cremator’s motif of disease is introduced at the waxworks. The tour guide shows a man who “hanged himself because he had the plague – a contagious disease –” who “died rather than contaminate others”. The man’s suicide is thus presented as honourable. This idea that death is the only way to stop the spread of disease resonates with the Holocaust and the genocide it resulted in. In order to insure purity in the Aryan race, the Nazis killed to stop the spread of disease. This literally meant curing the world of the Jewish plague. (20) The idea of honourable death can be linked to Karl as well. After being brainwashed by Nazi ideology, he feels that killing his wife, children, and ultimately all the “suffering” Jews, is the only honourable thing to do. Murder becomes his Final Solution.

The tour guide at the waxworks leads Karl into a special exhibition reserved for “gentlemen with strong nerves” as well. Inside, Karl sees a lifeless freak show of deformed children preserved in glass jars. The guide says, “Here we have all the contagious diseases … syphilis … gonorrhea.” Soon after, Karl’s reflection is juxtaposed with a preserved head deformed by a sexually transmitted disease. The head’s mouth is open and its tongue hangs out. Karl’s reflection mimics its pose. In addition to paralleling Karl to this monstrous deformed head, this shot also conveys his fear of disease and resonates with the Nazi’s hatred of impurity.

Karl continually returns to Dr. Bettleheim for blood tests throughout the film. While Karl claims that testing is necessary because he handles dead bodies, he is actually concerned because he visits a prostitute once a month. As he lies to Dr. Bettleheim, stating that, “You know I touch no woman but my angel”, a jump cut of the deformed face from the waxworks bursts onto the screen. It becomes obvious that Karl is afraid of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Once again, the spread of disease is a problem that must be solved.

An example of the propaganda poster motif in The Cremator A recruiting poster for the German Reichswehr (National Defence). Image borrowed from Olive-Drab Online, artist unknown.

Actual propagandistic images are presented three times within The Cremator. The first is printed on an advertisement that Karl has created for the crematorium, the second on a poster Reineke presents to Karl when suggesting that he join the Party (picture above left), and the third on a flyer urging Mili to join a youth sports club. The inclusion of these images reminds viewers of the ideological manipulation that took place during World War II. The photo above on the right is a propagandistic recruitment poster used by Germany to promote the Reichswehr, a national defence military organization that became the Wehrmacht in 1935. Its design clearly resonates with that of the posters featured in Herz’s film.

The detrimental “brainwashing” affects of propaganda are illustrated through Karl’s declining ethical sensibility. After he hears Reineke propagate Germany and realizes that he will have access to a limitless supply of blonde women as a member of the National Socialist party, Karl quickly goes from insisting that his blood is purely Czech to reluctantly admitting that there is a drop of German blood running through his veins too. As a result of his sexual and monetary desires, Karl adopts the Nazi ideology, sends his children to a German school and comes to believe that he is himself German. He ultimately sacrifices his family and is prepared to sacrifice a countless number of other Jews in the name of personal success. In addition to reflecting on the Holocaust, The Cremator served to warn contemporary Czechs and Slovaks against falling victim to propaganda’s ability to manipulate individual morality. Like Czechoslovakians who lived during the German occupation, those living under communism were all too familiar with the pressures of propaganda and the imposition of ideology.

Æsopian Commentary on Communism in Czechoslovakia – 1968

A swastika drawn on a Soviet tank after the Prague Spring. Image borrowed from “Prague Spring” on Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, photographer unknown.

Prior to the Velvet Revolution in 1989, direct criticism of the communist government was forbidden in Czechoslovakia. As a result, many films from Czechoslovakia and other East Central European countries are rich with Æsopian subtext. In films from this region, occupying forces such as Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union are virtually synonymous; both represent repression. The Soviets that “liberated” Czechoslovakia in 1945 soon became oppressors themselves.

In 1968, the same year that The Cremator was produced, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia and put an end to the brief period of political and artistic liberalization known as the Prague Spring. When discussing his filming of The Cremator during the Prague Spring, Herz states that “it was a very euphoric time […] I had the feeling that the whole Czech nation braved against the Russians. One day it was said that the names of the streets would be changed so the Russians would get confused, and the next morning there were no signs on the streets at all. I never thought that this nation could be broken” (24). With this in mind, certain portions of the film appear to have been deliberately included as Æsopian messages. Herz points out that he purposefully never states in the film that Karl joins the Nazi Party; “it was always just ‘the Party’” (25).

When speaking of the German occupation, before he submits to the Party, Karl says the following: “I hear there’s martial law in the frontier regions. This will end in suffering.” Karl’s comments no doubt epitomize the feelings of many Czechoslovakians towards the end of the Prague Spring. The response that Dr Bettelheim offers seems to be an optimistic message derived from Herz’s own faith in Czechoslovakia. Bettelheim replies to Karl’s concern by saying that “violence never pays, it’s an unreliable principle of power. After all, we live in Europe in the 20th century, in a civilized world. Aggressors will always be beaten in the end.” Unfortunately for Czechoslovakia and Herz alike, the nation would live under communism for more than two decades after the completion of The Cremator.

Given the fact that Soviet forces occupied Czechoslovakia just after The Cremator was released, the line “we live in Europe in the 20th century, in a civilized world”, which is stressed several times throughout the film, seems both ironic and sadly absurd. Like The Shop on Main Street, a dominant theme of The Cremator is the struggle between opportunism and individual morality. Under the control of powerful nations such as Germany and the Soviet Union, the inhabitants of a small, vulnerable country such as Czechoslovakia were no doubt constantly tempted to embrace opportunism. If Nazi Germany is an allegorical representation of the Soviet Union and Karl embodies opportunism, the horror story that is his life is clearly a cautionary tale meant to show Czechoslovakians the importance of remaining true to individual morality. Sadly, no doubt as a result of its Æsopian commentary, The Cremator was banned shortly after its release (26).

Herz has revealed that the ending audiences see when they view The Cremator is not the one he desired. After the Soviets occupied Czechoslovakia, he filmed a new ending for his film. In Herz’s own words:

Two employees of the crematorium are sitting in a coffee shop in Reprezentační dům [Czech Parliament], and the Russian occupation tanks are passing behind the windows. The employees are talking about Mr. Kopfrkingl, he was such a nice man, what happened to him? The next shot shows the Museum in ruins. A long window reflects sad people’s faces right after the blowing up of the Museum and among them Kopfrkingl is back again smiling. (27)

Though Herz presented this updated ending to his studio director, he was prevented from including it in the final version of The Cremator. Herz speculates that the director may have burned the sequence “because he was too scared of the possible consequences” (Košuličová). It is no wonder why this fragment was destroyed; it would have further solidified the fact that Herz used his film’s historical context as a means of covertly criticizing the communist régime in Czechoslovakia. Despite the denial of this telling ending, The Cremator successfully recreates the tense atmosphere in Czechoslovakia before and after the signing of the Munich Agreement (1938), which Czechoslovakians often refer to as the “Munich Dictate”, as a means of subtly illustrating how detrimental the Soviet invasion of 1968 was to the Czechoslovak spirit and mind-set.

Conclusion: A Case for The Cremator

Daniel Bird points out that one of the primary reasons Herz has been excluded from the Czechoslovak New Wave is that “his work lacks the political bite of, for example, Jan Němec or Věra Chytilová’s films”. The Cremator, however, is a work of artistic social criticism in tune with other esteemed works of the movement. The individuals who took part in the production of The Cremator alone justify its position as an important piece of the New Wave. Zdeněk Liška began composing scores for films more than a decade before the New Wave began. He is a prolific musician whose list of accomplishments includes František Vláčil’s Holubice (The White Dove, 1960) and the eerie Údolí včel (Valley of the Bees, 1967), Juraj Jakubisko’s Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni (Birds, Orphans, and Fools, 1969), Věra Chytilová’s Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (Fruit of Paradise, 1969), and numerous works by both Karel Kachyňa and Jan Švankmajer. The Cremator also features Jiří Menzel, one of the Czechoslovak New Wave’s most renowned directors-actors, in the supporting role of Dvorak, Karl’s timid co-worker at the crematorium. In addition to his contribution of the short film, Smrt pana Baltazara (The Death of Mr. Baltazar), to Pearls of the Deep, Menzel has also directed films such as the Oscar-winning Ostře sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains, 1966), Rozmarné léto (Capricious Summer, 1968) and the brilliant Skřivánci na nití (Skylarks on a String, 1969).

Rudolf Hrusínský, who plays Karl, is without question one of Czechoslovakia’s best-known and celebrated actors. Active since the late 1930s, Hrusínský is a household name in East Central Europe and has starred in a multitude of films. His role of the deranged Karl in The Cremator comes in sharp contrast to his performance as the clueless yet lovable Schweik in Dobrý voják Svejk (The Good Soldier Schweik, 1956), a film by Karel Steklý based on the world-famous satiric novel by Jaroslav Hašek. Hrusínský was recognized for his performance in The Cremator with the award for Best Actor at the 1972 Sitges International Film Festival.

The Good Soldier Schweik. Image borrowed from Barrandov Studios Online, photographer unknown. Hrusínský as the less jolly, more maniacal Karl in The Cremator

In their introductory interview on Second Run DVD’s version of The Cremator, the Quay brothers label it “an important film” and lament that it has seemingly been lost and forgotten. After viewing the film, one cannot help but agree and share in their sorrow. Regardless of the reception of Herz’s body of work as a whole, The Cremator is capable of standing alone as an accomplished film. Perhaps the auteur theory sometimes prevents us from giving due credit to directors whose work fails to be consistently well received. Even if Herz and his films must exist on the margins of the Czechoslovak New Wave, The Cremator still deserves to be recognized as an important part of the history of Czechoslovak cinema. It is an ingeniously orchestrated film, full of complexities, and capable of giving the horror genre a better name. While its focus is on the history of East Central Europe, those unfamiliar with the region’s political past can surely enjoy it as a work of black comedy or psychological horror. The time has come to resurrect this black pearl from the deep and give it the recognition that it deserves.

Other works cited

German/Nazi Propaganda Poster”, 18 October 2006, Olive-Drab Online, 10 January 2006.

The Good Soldier Schweik”, Barrandov Studios Online, 14 January 2007.

Swastika on Soviet Tank”, 6 November 2006, Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 10 November 2006.

Endnotes

  1. See Daniel Bird, “To Excess: The Grotesque in Juraj Herz’s Czech Films”, Kinoeye: New Perspectives on European Film, Volume 2, Issue 1, 20 October 2006.
  2. In his article, Daniel Bird comments that Herz’s films are disassociated from the Czechoslovak New Wave because the director emerged as a major filmmaker after the Prague Spring. I must also recommend Košuličová’s interview with Herz because it provides an intimate discussion of both his life and work. Ivana Košuličová, “Drowning the Bad Times: Juraj Herz Interviewed”, Kinoeye: New Perspectives on European Film, Volume 2, Issue 1, 25 October 2006.
  3. Josef Škvorecký, All the Bright Young Men and Women: A Personal History of the Czech Cinema (Toronto: Peter Martin Associates Limited, 1971), p. 213.
  4. The shorts included in Pearls of the Deep are all based on a collection of Bohumil Hrabal’s stories by the same name. Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš, Jiří Menzel, Jan Němec and Evald Schorm all directed shorts for the film. In his interview with Košuličová, Herz states that The Junk Shop, the longest of the films directed for Pearls, was removed from the final theatrical version to shorten its running time. Ivan Passer’s contribution, Fádni odpoledne (A Boring Afternoon, 1964), was omitted as well.
  5. Jiří Suchý and Jiří Šlitr’s Semafor Theater had a major influence on the coming of the Czechoslovak New Wave. Hames notes that Jan Roháč, Vladimír Svitáček, Ladislav Rychman, Jiří Menzel and Juraj Herz were the Czechoslovak film directors most closely associated with Semafor. See Peter Hames, The Czechoslovak New Wave (London: Wallflower Press, 2005), p. 26.
  6. Škvorecký notes that the other most attended films of 1969 were Evald Schorm’s Farářův konec (End of a Priest, 1969) and Vojtěch Jasný’s Všichni dobří rodáci (All My Good Countrymen, 1968). Škvoreck, p. 214.
  7. Screen capture from The Cremator.
  8. Bird, op. cit.
  9. In an interview on Second Run DVD’s version of The Cremator (2006), the Quay brothers provide very insightful commentary on the film itself, Herz and his relationship with Jan Švankmajer.
  10. Hames, p. 40.
  11. Ivana Košuličová, “Drowning the Bad Times: Juraj Herz Interviewed”, Kinoeye: New Perspectives on European Film, Volume 2, Issue 1, 25 October 2006.
  12. Richard Taylor, Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006), p. 152.
  13. Ibid, p. 174.
  14. Ibid, p. 175.
  15. Ibid, p. 176.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid, p. 177.
  18. Ibid, p. 176.
  19. Ibid, p. 178.
  20. However painful and disturbing it may be to watch, Peter Cohen’s Architecture of Doom is an excellent source of information regarding the evolution of Nazi æsthetics. It also provides valuable commentary on the ways in which Nazi propaganda demonized Jews by equating them with disease and physical imperfection, among other things.
  21. Screen capture from The Cremator.
  22. Image borrowed from Olive-Drab Online, artist unknown.
  23. Image borrowed from “Prague Spring” on Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, photographer unknown.
  24. Košuličová.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.

About The Author

Adam Schofield has studied film at Northern Michigan University and is currently a freelance writer. His interests include the cinema of East Central Europe, the Czechoslovak New Wave and windmills.