Surrealism and satire blend in this Czech New Wave masterpiece from 1968
One of the defining films of the Czechoslovak New Wave of the 60s, Juraj Herz’s blistering 1968 masterpiece The Cremator is political satire, morbid gothic horror and pitch-black comedy all at once. Taking place on the eve of World War II, the nefariously affable Karl Kopfrkingl (an astonishing performance by Rudolf Hrušínský) is a figure fixated on outward appearances as well as having a prurient obsession with death and cremation. As head cremator at his 'temple of death' he gesticulates on the importance of ending human suffering (i.e. life) and returning to dust, claiming that The Tibetan Book of The Dead is his bible. When an Austrian friend turns up for dinner with the cremator’s family and begins to feed his psyche with theories on National Socialism, Karl’s descent into fascism, madness and murder begins.
There is so much going on in Herz’s film formally and contextually that is hard to encapsulate it in one review. Technically, the film is a bold and disorientating blend of avant-garde technique, from Vertovian quick-cut montages to an inspired use of wide lenses and often perplexing scene transitions where one will overlap the other. The surreal comic moments are to be savoured too: at one point Karl asks his teenage daughter to serenade dining children with Mahler’s Songs on the Death of Children.
But it’s the chilling dénouement that lingers the longest, when Karl is seemingly given carte blanche to design industrial-size furnaces for The Party, as he quips, “people wouldn’t even have to be completely dead when they go inside…” An “unstoppable schedule of death” indeed.
Pristine HD transfer from the original Czech National Film Archive print where the contrast and sleek black tones of the image is intensely transmitted; interesting and insightful introduction by animators The Quay Brothers; Herz’ first short film Junkshop; illuminating 16-page booklet and recent Projection-booth podcast discussion of the film. [Adam Stafford]
Released by Second Run