During the 1960’s, cinema witnessed groundbreaking work and talent on what seemed like a weekly basis. The French New Wave produced classic after classic, which were not only boldly experimental, but also popular worldwide and created many cinephiles. In Japan, not only were established directors like Akira Kurosawa creating their best work, but there was also a groundswell of younger talented directors who would create some of the most daring work of world cinema (Nagisa Oshima, Toshio Matsumoto, Seijun Suzuki.) The Czech New Wave would flourish despite the totalitarian rule of the Communist regime with its own formally experimental works from Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel and Vera Chytilova.
The Cremator is one of the great works of this decade, but despite being produced during the Czech New Wave, it was almost erased from existence. Director Juraj Herz, who had an extensive background in animation, directed The Cremator when Czechslovakia was undergoing the Prague Spring, a brief period of liberalization. Its 1968 release was cut short by a Soviet clampdown, and after being reviewed by Soviet censors, The Cremator was locked in a vault and forgotten. It was showed sparingly over the years, and it was only in 2019, fifty years after its first release, that it has come into cinephile consciousness thanks to a new restoration and a Criterion release.
Even if The Cremator wasn’t openly critical of a totalitarian regime (meant to be Nazi Germany, but kept deliberately ambiguous, which did not escape the notice of the Soviet censors), it might have been banned for other reasons. It is an actively disconcerting and bizarrely surreal movie.
Rudolf Hrusinsky plays the titular cremator, Karel Kopfrkingl. Physically, he is an unassuming man; he might be mistaken for a bureaucrat. Yet he is an avid devotee of his job, viewing it as more as a sacred calling. He invokes Tibetan religion and believes that, through cremation, he is liberating the souls of the deceased. He will talk about what he loves about his job anywhere, whether it is at a big dinner party like he does at the beginning of the movie, or to the Nazi officials that recruit him to aid in their mass exterminations.
To reflect Karel’s clearly disturbed psychology, Herz, along with cinematographer Stanislav Milota and editor Jaromir Janacek, pulls out all the stops. Shot in rich black and white that clearly hearkens back to German expressionism, The Cremator is a grim fever dream, characterized by wide lens cinematography and jarring juxtapositions. Often, techniques such as the use of fisheye lens and cuts to superficially unrelated images draw attention to themselves, but Hrusinsky is so good at embodying Karel’s disturbed state of mind that the visual imagery meshes seamlessly with his performance.
While The Cremator may sound like an unpleasant movie, it is a hypnotic watch and entertaining in its own way. It actually dips into genre elements more frequently than one would think for such an experimental film. It may be the only movie of the Czech New Wave that could be classified as horror. The scenes where he is pursuing his daughter so as to kill her to “liberate” her soul are straight thriller material. Karel could also be classified as a serial killer with megalomaniacal tendencies. His self-delusion is so complete that he has, in a sense, “liberated” himself from conventional, much-needed morality. In a twisted way, he has achieved what he seeks in his cremation without having to do the deed. It is no surprise that Nazi ideology is so appealing to him because Nazism works on similarly nebulous delusions of grandeur with a self-destructive undercurrent.
The Cremator could not have had too much of its influence just because of how briefly it was publicly screened, yet perhaps because it exists outside of mainstream culture, this film remains startlingly modern and original. Even compared to other Czech New Wave films, The Cremator stands out. While movies like Closely Watched Trains and Daisies were critical of political and societal mores, many of the most prominent Czech New Wave films skewed towards comedy and satire. The Cremator could be classified as a dark comedy, but it has a direct line to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which similarly dealt with mental instability. Perhaps as it gets more popular after its re-release, we will see more movies take a page from the twisted world that Herz was able to create under an immense time pressure.