The Cremator

15 Jan

One of, if not the best film to come out of the short lived period of artistic freedom that accompanied the Prague Spring is Juraj Herz’s The Cremator. Unfairly sidelined when discussing the work of the Czechoslovak New Wave, Herz’s dizzying film is a truly impressive work that combines the black comedy and psychological horror genres to dazzling effect. The film follows the titular cremator, Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínský) who is fanatical with regards to his work and descends into madness as he is courted by the invading Nazi party. The allegorical nature of the film’s totalitarian force was not lost to the Soviet authorities who banned it shortly after its release.

The film’s memorable visuals succeed in disorientating the viewer into an almost hypnotised state. The amount of varying styles that Herz and cinematographer Stanislav Milota manage to blend together into a single package without the style becoming distracting is a feat unto itself. The Cremator features surrealistic elements that likely originate from Herz’s puppetry background and that of his friend Jan Švankmajer (Alice); expressionistic mise-en-scène that harks back to another film that features a madman – Robert Wiene’s silent masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; extreme close-ups in the vein of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc; deep focus shots that resemble Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and even some Hitchcockian scene transitions. However, perhaps most frighteningly of all, is the film’s terrifying use of the first-person perspective to not just disorientate you by putting you in close proximity with a deranged madman but implanting you into his mind itself.

The film’s horrifying nature is further amplified by the haunting, chilling soundtrack that accompanies it, courtesy of composer Zdeněk Liška but even more important is the man who plays the madman – Rudolf Hrušínský who plays Karl in the manner of a creepier, slimier and all together scarier Peter Lorre (M). Quoting from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he is obsessed by his duties to the point where he believes he is liberating souls by setting them free to pursue reincarnation. With Karl, Herz perhaps goes deeper than anyone else in cinema in exploring the human origins of the Holocaust, the necessary living mechanisms that would assist the Final Solution in being realised – the atrocities that Herz, himself a Holocaust survivor, experienced first hand.

The parallels with reality – historical or present – that The Cremator carries make it one of the most terrifying films in the entire horror genre. The plot is a journey that travels from dark humour characteristic of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to surreal psychological horror that featured a few years earlier in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and could later be found in the work of David Lynch. Herz’s masterpiece is an altogether more frightening document on the loss of humanity that accompanies times of war and tumult.


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