Juraj Herz’s The Cremator is a bizarre experience. Maybe a good companion piece for The Conformist (and maybe that film + Mephisto as a way to describe it), it follows Kopfrkingl (Rudolpf Hrusinsky) a cremator in Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s. He’s loquacious, a bit eerie, and really, really in love with his job. Kopfrkingl is slowly influenced by friends to promote an anti-Semitic position.
The Cremator fits nicely into the Czech New Wave, even featuring director Jiri Menzel (of Closely Watched Trains from 1966) in a prominent role. The cinematography is bold and fantastic. Perhaps the most notable feature, however, is the wall-to-wall sound. Kopfrkingl basically monologues over the entire film, and the score by Zdenek Liska occupies nearly the entire runtime. Kopfrkingl is self-obsessed and overly genteel, ultimately coming across as disingenuous.
Herz and cinematographer Stanislov Milota (whose credits are limited despite fine work here) create a bizarre world that would make Terry Gilliam proud with its expressive use of wide angle lenses-
-and camera moves that verge on the violent.
Though listed as a horror film on various websites, The Cremator is more like a slow psychological descent. Its humor is pitch-black, and its critique of an impressionable and malleable pre-WWII Czech society is chilling.
The editing of The Cremator is fast and jagged, with Herz cutting often from big wides to really tight close-ups, sometimes in such a way as to feel arhythmic. His transition from scene to scene are frequently match cuts, moving us to a new location without really announcing said arrival. Even the opening title sequence of the film announces its unsettling plot to come as character’s heads are ripped apart like paper dolls to display their names (sorry about the bar at the bottom of the image here):
While The Cremator‘s humor is derived from its ludicrousness and side characters (particularly a husband and wife who are always late for everything, and frequently leaving early and complaining loudly), it’s also a mysterious film. Kopfrkingl talks loudly about his devotion to Tibetan philosophy, and, while this certainly comes off as duplicitous, his later visions of himself as a Tibetan monk suggest that anyone with the type of mindset who could be duped into Nazism must also be an egomaniac. Mixed amidst Kopfrkingl’s gradual evolution is an enigmatic woman in black. Here she alone faces Kopfrkingl (in that fantastic second shot) as a group of Nazi sympathizers enter his crematorium to “clear out” those he’s indicated as Jewish or as having anti-Nazi leanings:
Is she a warning? A reminder to Kopfrkingl that he’s heading in a bad direction? A representation of death?