250. THE CREMATOR (1969)

Spalovac Mrtvol

“The Lord arranged it very well when he told people: ‘Remember, dust thou art and to dust thou returnest.’ A crematorium, dear friends, is clearly a God-pleasing object, because it helps God to speed up the transformation of people into dust.”–Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rudolf Hrusínský, Ilja Prachar, Milos Vognic, Jana Stehnová, Jirí Lír

PLOT: Kopfrkingl is a crematorium operator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s who holds odd opinions about the liberating nature of death, based largely on his self-study of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Because he has German blood, an old army buddy recruits him into the Czech branch of the Nazi party. His beloved wife’s half-Jewish parentage, however, soon becomes an issue that threatens his advancement both in the party, and in his chosen profession.

Still from The Cremator (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, a Czech who had been a forced laborer (arbeitseinsatz) during the Nazi occupation. Fuks collaborated with director Juraj Herz on the screenplay.
  • Although he was their contemporary, Herz did not consider himself part of the In school he studied puppetry (in the same class as ) rather than film, and had few friends in the New Wave clique. (One exception was director , who plays the small role of Dvorák in The Cremator). He did sneak in to film screenings at FAMU (the national film school that incubated the New Wave movement) and filmed a segment for the 1966 anthology Pearls of the Deep, which was rejected because of its length (30 minutes).
  • The Cremator began filming during the Prague Spring, but was interrupted by the Soviet invasion in 1969, which made completing it a challenge. The film was released and screened but removed from circulation soon after.
  • Czechoslovakia submitted The Cremator to the Oscars as Best Foreign Film, but the Academy did not grant it an official nomination.
  • The Cremator won best film, actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) and cinematography (Stanislav Milota) at the Sitges Film Festival, but not until 1972, three years after its initial release.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Most likely it’s frequently tuxedoed cremator-in-chief Rudolf Hrusínský’s round face, the subject of so many closeups, that will stick with you the most. We chose to highlight the moment when he is invited into the rear tent at the freaskshow to gaze at the embalmed two-headed specimens and faces ravaged by syphilis, in which he shows a strange fascination.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Buddhist Nazism; the throne in Lhasa; girl in black

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A WWII drama soaked in an atmosphere of Gothic psychological horror, The Cremator seems like a screenplay might have written if he’d lived to see the Holocaust. Distorted lenses and madcap montages track the cremator’s bent descent from eccentric mortician to megalomaniacal tool of ultimate evil.


Second Run DVD trailer for The Cremator

COMMENTS: The IMDB categorizes The Cremator as, among other genres (Crime/Drama/Horror/Thriller), a comedy; and the biggest debate on the film’s message boards is whether this designation is accurate or not. In itself, the debate is meaningless (IMDB’s genre classifications are extremely inclusive), but it is revealing in one sense: no one is sure quite how to categorize The Cremator. Yes, there are comic elements: the way meticulous Kopfrkingl uses his ever-present comb to touch up the hair of everyone he comes into contact with, living or dead, or when he ties the dangling shoelace of a hanged woman. But almost every movie has moments of comic relief; the shooting of the chicken thief in Schindler’s List didn’t turn it into a comedy. The Cremator is also frequently called “surreal,” and although that’s more on point, it’s only true in the loosest possible sense of the term. The incongruous music, which is uncomfortable and foreboding during the most mundane dinner conversations, and the title sequence, where disembodied hands and buttocks spill over the credits, are the best examples of the Surrealistic aesthetic seeping into the film. The main methodology is dramatic, however, with elements of fantasy and Brechtian dislocation (one scene fades into the next during a line of dialogue, keeping the audience off balance). The overall tone is horror, and by the end, when Kopfrkingl becomes an actual murderer, The Cremator turns into a genuine horror show.

Perhaps the best way to categorize The Cremator is as a psychological character study, one which necessarily carries a strong burden of allegory. Round-faced Rudolf Hrusínský, who suggests Adolph Hitler by way of Peter Lorre, absolutely rules the screen as one of the most unique characters ever filmed. His (over)confidence and ambition are evident from his opening monologue, but it is strange that his fellow villagers are so willing to overlook his oddities, such as his braggadocious abstinence from liquor and tobacco, which leads him to rudely snuff out other people’s cigars. This premature extinguishing act, of course, is ironic for one whose entire profession is to produce ash, and who has a bizarre religious attachment to the art of cremation (he even instructs that his pet cat be cremated). He justifies his acceptance of the German invaders because they are civilized—like the Czechs, they also have a cremation law, and they have burned their dead since olden times. He’s obsessed with Buddhism and the concept of reincarnation, which he manages to integrate into pre-existing Christian beliefs in his funerary sermons—and later, he reconciles Buddhism with Fascism, too, concluding that death camps will cleanse the world of suffering.

For a character who seems so self-assured, Kopfrkingl is easily led. He absorbs every idea that crosses his mind—the efficiency of cremation, Buddhist notions of reincarnation, the Nazi notion of pure blood—and they all melt together in the furnace of his mind to reinforce his messianic complex. Although he speaks with quiet self-assurance, he also constantly preens, adjusting his tie, cleaning his ears with q-tips at a formal affair, and always combing hair (his, and others). This suggests a man who, despite his convictions about his own spiritual depth, is actually more concerned with surface appearances. His protestations of abstinence from liquor and tobacco hide two deeper vices: lust for women, and for social status. Despite his love for his wife (which appears genuine) he has a taste for prostitutes. Originally, whores are a monthly indulgence, but the Nazi recruiters catch his interest with the promise of access to exclusive courtesans for party members only—all of whom are conspicuously blonde. They are a social upgrade over the brunette hookers Kopfrkingl has become accustomed to at the Czech brothel. Once he’s allowed inside the orgiastic Nazi “pink casino,” he compromises his own ritual purity by drinking champagne, then starts naming names—it seems that every rival, every superior at the crematorium, has been whispering sedition against the Führer.

But Kopfrkingl doesn’t recognize the contradictions he embraces. He seems to genuinely love his wife and children, yet he shows no remorse over his whoring. The Jewish doctor, whom Kopfrkingl admires for his refined taste in music and the free services he provides the hypochondriac, reminds him that there is no detectable race in blood, anymore than there is in human ashes; but this sensible observation doesn’t save the physician from false accusations of sedition that advance his friend’s career. Kopfrkingl’s spiritual beliefs support his treachery: by hastening death, which he views as something not to be feared, but even welcomed, he is doing the world a service. The fact that he profits in this life from the deaths of others does not concern him. “Suffering is a great evil and we must do everything in our power to alleviate it,” he says, hinting at euthanasia. The eerie laments of the ghostly choirs that accompany his proclamation on the soundtrack undercut his argument. Impure Jews are destined to suffer under the coming regime; so, murder is a kindness. By the end, like a good Nazi, he is completely delusional, believing that he is saving the world, sending souls off to God to be reborn in happier forms. The movie’s view of belief in the afterlife is subversive: if death is to be welcomed as a liberation of the soul from the body, then murderers are saints. Religion, whether it be Christianity, Buddhism, or Kopfrkingl’s self-serving ad hoc spirituality, is an enemy of humanism, capable of justifying horrific atrocities in the name of the “greater good.”

Who is the ghostly dark-haired figure whom only Kopfrkingl can see? She appears several times, and he is usually discomfited by her presence. Some see her as Death; a reasonable, if pedestrian, interpretation. In their video introduction to the Second Run DVD, the more aptly suggest that she represents a sort of salvation for the cremator, a warning he initially fails to comprehend, then rejects. More specifically, I think that she may literally be his memory of his first meeting with his wife, an event to which he often fondly alludes. The dark haired damsel bears flowers (which she might have received as a courting gift) could easily pass for a younger version of Mrs. Kopfrkingl. In fact, her second appearance in the film occurs immediately after the cremator delivers the following speech: “I’ve been with my wife Lakmé for 17 years and it’s still so wonderful, just like the first time we met by the leopard’s cage.” The mysterious woman’s most reproachful appearance occurs at Lakmé‘s funeral, which Kopfrkingl ends in sacrilegious fashion with an ode to the Führer which elicits a “heil!” from attendant Nazis. She represents a time when Kopfrkingl might have legitimately turned his ambition and talents to nurturing his family, to serving humanity, and to protecting those weaker than himself. In the end, her vision no longer haunts him; her ghosts runs helplessly behind his car as he is driven off to assume his new responsibilities as the Nazi Lama, saving the world by turning humanity into divine ash.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“An enjoyably strange, undoubtedly original and occasionally terrifying film.”–Film 4

“…the whole film is a dazzling and effective demonstration of how to creating a mood of increasing unease and surreality.”–Noel Megahey, The Digital Fix (DVD)

“…for cinephiles and those who love weird films…”–Don Neumann, The Quiet Earth (DVD)

IMDB LINK: The Cremator (1969)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Second Run DVD – The Cremator – The British video distributor’s Cremator page is the next best thing to an official site

“Drowning the bad times: Horror director Juraj Herz interviewed – This interview from the January 2002 edition of “Kinoeye” spans the director’s entire career, with several mentions of The Cremator

To excess: The grotesque in Juraj Herz’s Czech films – “Kinoeye”‘s overview of Herz’s oeuvre, with a Cremator section

The Cremator – Brian Hoyle’s appreciation for “Senses of Cinema” Issue 44 (August 2007) includes a wealth of background information on the film

A Black Pearl of the Deep: Juraj Herz’s The Cremator – Semi-academic essay by Adam Schofield for “Senses of Cinema” discussing cinematography, Nazi propaganda, and hidden anti-Communist messages

THE CREMATOR [SPALOVAC MRTVOL] (1969) – ‘s original review of the film for this site

DVD INFO: Bad news for North Americans who want to own The Cremator. The 2009 Dark Sky DVD (buy) contains no extra features and, worse yet, is out of print (though used copies shouldn’t be too terribly hard to find).

This is yet another case where it pays to be a European or to have a multi-region DVD player, since such folks will have access to the greatly superior offering from Second Run (buy). They were so dedicated to the release they even made their own trailer (which can be seen above). The package also comes with a booklet with an essay by Daniel Bird and an appreciative video introduction from weird-celebrity fans the .

Curiously, the Criterion Collection owns the streaming rights to The Cremator—it has been part of their branded lineup on Hulu Plus since 2013. Yet they have never issued the film on Blu-ray or DVD, nor did they include it in their “Pearls of the Czech New Wave” set, where it would have been a perfect fit. We suspect that they are holding out for a future release, and will update you if that happy event comes to pass.

One thought on “250. THE CREMATOR (1969)”

  1. “Like” hardly seems like an appropriate descriptor, but I do like (or admire} this film a lot. Definitely one of those “mileage may vary” films.

    From an earlier review of mine:

    “Rudolf Hrusínský’s extraordinary performance gives new meaning to the word demented, as he plays the Nazi-era Czech cremator, whose calling he sees tied to the encroaching Third Reich forces, though fortunately he is blessed with “true German blood” and an affinity for the Tibetan Book of the Dead — and also (unfortunately) a Jewish wife, and their “less than pure” son and daughter. And…I think you can imagine where this is going. Descents into madness are rarely so artfully portrayed — or as unpleasantly. Hrusínský channels a fair amount of Peter Lorre into his sick characterization. “

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