The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol)
By David Paul Hellings.
“Juraj Herz’s film The Cremator has been described in many ways – as surrealist-inspired horror, as expressionist fantasy, as a dark and disturbing tale of terror.
This brilliantly chilling film, a mix of Dr. Strangelove and Repulsion, is set in Prague during the Nazi occupation. It tells the story of Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínský), a professional cremator, for whom the political climate allows free rein to his increasingly deranged impulses for the ‘salvation of the world’”
– Second Run DVD
“A crematorium is no place for jokes”.
If ever a film encompassed the concept of the banality of evil, it is Juraj Herz’s 1968 masterpiece “The Cremator”, and at its heart a superb central performance by Rudolf Hrušínský as the cremator Karl Kopfrkingl, whose descent into madness is one of the finest characters created in the history of Czech cinema.
“The Cremator” is a dark and disturbing piece, a surreal horror made more unsettling by the reality of the scenario presented and the character of Kopfrkingl, reminiscent of Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckert from “M” and Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates from “Psycho” rolled into one.
Director Herz, a contemporary of Jan Svankmajer (with whom Herz would work), reveals his origins of having studied puppetry and theatre, creating a grotesque central character whose smile is more disturbing than a thousand horror porn clichés, and reveals more terror in the simple use of a comb than any axe-wielding maniacs in slasher horror. That Kopfrkingl rationalises his actions with such simple banality makes him a truly disturbing character, a man without rage, performing his acts with such a cold logic and ease that his future under a Nazi occupation looks to be one of great success for the short time it will last.
The collaboration between director Herz, Cinematographer Stanislav Milota, and Editor Jaromír Janáček pays dividends, the final result visually compelling and aided by an excellent score by Zdenek Liska that results in a surreal and compelling film. Stylistic without being style over substance, there is a creepiness rarely seen in straight out horror films since the Seventies. That “The Cremator” is also a fantasy and political allegory only adds to the depth of the material.
In his illuminating essay in the accompanying booklet, Daniel Bird notes:
“Spalovač mrtvol is based on a book by Ladislav Fuks. According to Herz, he was actually unimpressed by the novel, but arranged to meet its author nonetheless. During the course of two years, the pair hammered out a literary script and, in 1968, the film went into production. However, Herz realised that there would soon be a Soviet clampdown and that Spalovač mrtvol was probably his only chance to make a film with total artistic freedom. In August, shooting was interrupted by the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia. Herz had yet to shoot many of the interiors and the Cremator himself, Rudolf Hrušínský, had gone into hiding. Hrušínský was at his summer home in South Bohemia when a Czech soldier advised him to go to the nearby airbase for his own safety. Bored after spending eight days there, Hrušínský returned to Prague to finish Herz’s film”.
“The Cremator” is one of those rare jewels that you wander across in a desert and come to recognise it for what it is: a wondrous discovery and another example of how distinctive and thought provoking the Czech film industry once was.
In their insightful introduction, the Quay Brothers describe “The Cremator” as “visionary”, “disturbing”, and “a very important film”. They’re right on all counts.
A highly recommended and unforgettable piece of work.
Main cast and crew:
Karl Kopfrkingl – Rudolf Hrušínský
Lakme – Vlasta Chramostova
Walter Reinke – Ilja Prachar
Zina – Jana Stehnova
Milivoj – Milos Vognic
Dvorak – Jiri Menzel
Director – Juraj Herz
Screenplay – Ladislav Fuks and Juraj Herz
Based on the book by Ladislav Fuks
Cinematography – Stanislav Milota
Editor – Jaromír Janáček
Music – Zdenek Liska
Production Designer – Zbynek Hloch
Sound – Frantisek Cerny
Newly filmed introduction by the Quay Brothers
New digital transfer with restored image and sound.
Anamorphic 16:9 enhanced for widescreen televisions.
New and improved English subtitle translation.
Optimal quality dual-layer disc.
Booklet featuring a new essay on the film and Juraj Herz by writer/producer Daniel Bird.
“The Cremator” is available from Second Run DVD.
This review originally appeared on SFFWorld: