Opening on extreme close-ups of a leopard trapped within a cage, Juraj Herz’s ‘The Cremator’ is the cinematic equivalent of a black hole, it sucks the audience into the warped imagination of Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínský), who is out on a day trip with his family. On paper, that doesn’t seem disturbing at all, in fact, one would say that he would be a kindly Father figure. But once people view the opening, it’s clear that Kopfrkingl would be repulsed by that attitude. Herz distorts the environment thanks to a break-neck editing pace of Kopfrkingl’s brow or mouth and use of a fish-eye lens to create an off-putting sense of doom; as Kopfrkingl reminisces of how he and his wife first met at the same zoo. The use of dismal female vocals on the soundtrack is the icing on the cake for how other-worldly the tone of ‘The Cremator’ is.
And that’s just the first five minutes of the film. Herz ratchets up the twisted mind of Kopfrkingl throughout this classic Czech film, newly reissued on Blu-Ray by Second Run, to bring us a harrowing tale of death and sorrow that is unique for its time; with a perverted sense of humour to boot. As expected, Kopfrkingl is the titular cremator, who enjoys his job so much that he has a Tibetan book of the dead as his bible and gushes that his ‘temple of death’ is the ultimate solution in sending souls to the afterlife. Unlike rotting in a grave for twenty years to fully decompose, his crematorium takes seventy-five minutes for a cold body to be turned into “dust”. Hrušínský is petrifying in the lead role. This character is not just someone who makes your skin crawl, this is a character who will make your skin turn pale and cold, like the carcasses in his temple. He has that much of a powerful presence on-screen yet Hrušínský never enters the realms of scenery chewing.
Sporting a greasy comb-over and talking endlessly about his world views. Kopfrkingl’s passion comes not from his job just being a morbid fascination, but that he is the gatekeeper between the domains of the living and that of the recently departed; it’s practically his religion by now. And yet there is a sense of order within his mind. That he is the puppeteer who controls those around him including his family. Later on, he herds his son and daughter down to his morgue and never barks at them once for the entirety of the tour, almost like how a farmer would care for his sheep. I’ll leave it up to your imagination to fill in the blanks of what happens next. Kopfrkingl is just as icy and slippery a character as Peter Lorre’s turn as the maniacal Hans Beckert in Fritz Lang’s ‘M’; Hrušínský is that transformative and three-dimensional.
To support a lead performance like this, the atmosphere is nightmarish and ghoulish. This is not only achieved through the cinematography and the sets that envelop the screen and the cremator’s world, but the frenzied editing helps shape the film into a shattered mentality. Kopfrkingl repeatedly visits his local doctor for VD tests despite not having sex with no-one else apart from his wife. Whilst taking a blood test, Herz inserts a single frame of a body plagued with syphilis. Could this act as a flash of memory for Kopfrkingl? That he recalls each one of the deceased who sent to him, how they passed on, and how they can’t escape him in the present? It’s amazing that this one frame can gather a number of interpretations from various people.
I have never seen a film like this been so daring to talk about how one man’s vision of a world is so perverted, whilst being so calm and collected on the outside; death is that normal for him. ‘The Cremator’ is a demented and twisted film that is an absolute essential to watch for any fan of the Czech New Wave or the Left Bank that Herz emerged from, like his contemporaries Jan Švankmajer and Eduard Grecner. Honestly, this makes the works of Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier look like farcical comedies in comparison. This Second Run Blu-Ray is must have for the holidays, featuring a short introduction from the Quay brothers, two audio commentaries, and an excellent booklet that breaks down the film in an easy to digest fashion, as well as Herz’s debut short film ‘The Junk Shop’. Here’s hoping that they can upgrade their 1960’s Czech releases to this standard in the near future, it’s a goldmine to dig through. Have a very merry messed-up Christmas!