Every now and again, an ‘art’ film is re-released and lauded as a classic to the bemused public who would have normally never gone anywhere near it. The Cremator is one such film. However, this time, the plaudits are valid and if you’re a fan of Lynch or Jarmusch, or cinema in general; if you love pitch-black comedy or prefer your horror a little more abstract, this is for you.
Set in the 1930s, we are instantly put into the world of small village cremator Karl Kopfrkingl (Hrusínský), a softly spoken, moonfaced family man, whose philosophy of death (and, indeed, his work) is influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He also influenced by a friend who has joined ‘the Party’ - not named, but clearly the Nazis and also an allegory for the impending communist invasion the Czech’s were about to face (don’t panic: the allegories are not densely veiled and even if you ‘don’t get it’, you’ll still enjoy the movie). They can put Kopfrkingl’s unique talent for body burning to a greater cause. As his mind descends into psychosis (syphilis is clearly a concern since he has regular blood tests, and hypocritically, monthly visits to a brothel and furthered from a trip around the sideshow exhibit at the fair), his closest friends and loved ones become dispensable.
Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol) has been forgotten for many years, celebrated only by those who have sought to seek it out, and was banned in its native Czechoslovakia by the communist government until 1989. Not only is it an immensely entertaining movie, it’s a work of art that should be on the list of anyone looking to understand filmmaking and cinematography. Just as Orson Welles is heralded for his visual innovations, Herz, cinematographer Stanislav Milota, and editor Jaromír Janáček should be applauded for some of the most unique and captivating images here.
The transitions are brilliant; they disorient the viewer in the seamless way we move from scene to scene, often not knowing until a moment or two has passed that we are in a different location and timescale. These and some of the other flourishes are stunning and allow the viewer to be fully absorbed into Kopfrkingl’s descent into madness. The frequent use of fish-eye and wide angle lenses, coupled with fantastical narrative leaps depicting the protagonist’s internal thoughts and quick-cut close-ups are often breathtakingly beautiful.
Second Run’s Blu-ray shows the film at its best. Accompanied by a commentary, introduction, additional podcast, and booklet should one wish to delve deeper into the movie’s meaning and more about the director, the standout extra feature is Herz’s debut short film The Junk Shop (1965), which is another delicious black comedy.
THE CREMATOR (1969) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: JURAJ HERZ / SCREENPLAY: LADISLAV FUKS, JURAJ HERZ / STARRING: RUDOLF HRUSÍNSKÝ, VLASTA CHRAMOSTOVÁ, JANA STEHNOVÁ / RELEASE DATE: DECEMBER 11TH