“The Cremator” is a re-release of Czech director Juraj Herz’s unsettling 1968 effort about a deeply macabre man who slowly becomes a monster. The film has been enjoying somewhat of a revival of late, having been screened at a number of festivals, and even though it is now nearly forty years old, it has lost little of its power to chill.
Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, the film is set in Prague during the Nazi occupation, and follows Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky), a man who works in a massive, ornate crematorium. Kopfrkingl is obsessed with his work, believing death to be a release from the suffering of life, and that by incinerating corpses he is in fact liberating souls. The coming of the Nazis pushes his eccentricity into madness, perverting his already twisted ambitions and offering him the opportunity to live out his fantasies in horrifying fashion. Kopfrkingl takes to the Nazi ideal with frightening ease, gradually perverting his own beliefs as he comes to view himself as a saviour of mankind, at great cost to those around him, particularly his family.
“The Cremator” is not a horror film in the traditional sense, but is a darkly ironic and bleakly satirical comedy. Although there is little in the way of laughs, it is grotesquely humorous throughout, mainly through the lead character’s unfailing preoccupation with death. Particularly funny are his visions of the Dalai Lama, and his self-serving justifications for his own moral degeneration. Herz also plays some of the supporting cast for comedy, including a couple who turn up several times during scenes of death or violence, only to comment that they are too horrible to watch and run away. Despite such ludicrous undertones, the film is bleak and sombre throughout, with a stately pace that aptly resembles that of a funerary march.
The film is held together by Rudolf Hrusinsky’s excellent performance in the lead role, for which he deservedly received an award for best actor at the 1972 Stiges Film Festival. He exudes a quiet monstrousness, from his initially harmless and amusing morbidity, to the violent psychosis which he succumbs to during the latter stages of the film. His gradual and indeed horribly logical development into a fiend is wholly believable, and as such the film works wonderfully as a bleak character study and an insight into the mind of a man who would go on to commit atrocities through a deranged sense of compassion.
Herz’s direction has an expressionist feel, shot in black and white with a striking use of shadow and marked gothic sensibility. The film is very much seen through Kopfrkingl’s eyes, and as such, the city is given the look of a tomb, with the crematorium resembling the grand temple of death which he imagines it to be. This does mean that the proceedings do at times slip into the realm of the surreal, though this is skilfully done and works well as a method of illustrating both the character and the country’s decent into madness, giving the atmosphere that of an inescapable nightmare.
“The Cremator” is a unique example of modern gothic cinema, being both fantastic and grimly realistic. Finding comedy in the darkest recesses of the human spirit, Herz has produced a film which is genuinely chilling and filled with a sense of ominous dread. As such, it is horror of the purest kind, and is a sinister gem which deserves rediscovery.
Juraj Herz (director) / Juraj Herz (screenplay), Ladislav Fuks (novel)
CAST: Vlasta Chramostova …. Lakm’
Rudolf HrusÃnskÃ½ …. Kopfrkingl
JirÃ Menzel …. Dvorak
Ilja Prachar …. Walter Reineke
Jana Stehnova …. Zina
Milos Vognic …. Mili