Juraj Herz, director of “The Cremator,” told now-defunct Euro-film zine Kino Eye in 2002 that, to him, the typical horror film is a “chainsaw massacre”. That’s not exactly what you’ll find in “The Cremator,” Herz’s twisted 1968 tale of a crematorium worker driven mad by his own desires and the growing threat of Nazism, though the bodies do pile up fairly high by the film’s end. Instead, Herz uses blacker-than-black humor, super surrealistic imagery and a fantastically creepy performance by lead actor Rudolf Krusinsky to create a horror flick that fearlessly plumbs the depths of deranged weirdness while spotting a utterly mad grin. Out of print and unavailable for years, “The Cremator” is back on DVD, courtesy of Dark Sky Films.
The titular cremator is Karl Kopfrkingl (Hruskinsky), who spends his days working a massive, palatial crematorium. He’s obsessed with affairs both earthly and spiritual. He worries about providing enough for his family—his wife, Lakme, and his children, Zina, a budding pianist, and Mili, an effeminate young boy. It’s the late 1930s, and so added to his list of worries is the spectre of Nazism, first present when Kopfrkingl encounters a portrait of Hitler at a frame shop and, later, when his old army buddy Reinke comes over for dinner. The Nazis are massing on the Czech border and Reinke, a low-level party functionary, urges Kopfrkingl to join the Reich before it’s too late.
But Kopfrkingl is equally concerned with the spiritual well-being of himself and his family. He reads from a book on Tibetan spirituality and waxes eloquently about the Dalai Lama’s palace at Lhasa. For Kopfrkingl, cremation is as much a spiritual transformation as it is a physical change. The faster a person’s body is turned to ashes, he believes, the sooner it can be reincarnated and move up the spiritual ladder. As a neighbor kills the carp that will become the family’s Christmas dinner, Kopfrkingl jokes that the family cat—sitting nearby and hoping for a morsel of fish—may have been a Christmas carp itself in a past life.
The screenplay, written by Ladislav Fuks and based on his novel of the same name, is full of lots of moments like that, with Kopfrkingl dropping passing comments that at first are uncomfortably funny but become increasingly disturbing after further consideration. The script alone, along with a wonderfully creepy performance by Rudolf Hrusinsky, would be enough to make “The Cremator” wonderfully disturbing. Hrusinsky plays Kopfrkingl as a sort of blank slate, blindly parroting the popular beliefs of those around him while remaining devoted only to his unwavering belief in the power of cremation.
But director Juraj Herz layers the film with a foreboding, oppressive atmosphere, and even the simplest gestures carry with them a sinister intent. Whenever Kopfrkingl reaches into his coat pocket to pull out a comb and fix his hair, he could just as easily be reaching for a straight razor (it doesn’t help that he uses that same comb to fix the hair of corpses at the crematorium). His methods are actually less bloody, but just as brutal, and it takes little prodding from his Nazi pals to convince Kopfrkingl that his wife and children (who have some Jewish heritage) and his co-workers are all decadent and must be dispatched for the good of the Reich.
Underneath all the atmosphere is a strong foundation of surrealistic imagery, all of which lends “The Cremator” a dreamlike, hallucinatory state. A part of the Czech “New Wave” of filmmakers, Herz uses some seamless transitions to blend one scene into the next, and it’s hard to tell where Kopfrkingl’s bizarre visions end and reality begins. Herz also employs exaggerated angles and distorted shots to keep you off balance, and the deeper the film proceeds into Kopfrkingl’s madness, the less certain the terrain becomes. After killing his wife by hanging her in the bathroom (the only “nice room” in their home), Kopfrkingl emerges from the bath, clad in Buddhist robes with billows of steam floating behind him, his face twisted into some sort of psychotic, religious rapture that’s difficult to look at but impossible to turn away from. “The Cremator” won’t startle you, but it will make you laugh and shudder, usually at the same time. It’s horrific not so much for anything that happens on screen but more for its implications. There’s plenty of Kopfrkingl’s in the world, and they’re all just waiting for a chance to get their ovens fired up.
The mere fact that “The Cremator” is on DVD and widely available is good news, at least for horror fans with a bent toward the outré and weird. But Dark Sky Film’s DVD is a bit light for such a strange, interesting movie. The image quality is great and the sound is fantastic—important for a film in which sweeping classical music figures so heavily (“All sensitive people like music,” Kopfrkingl says frequently). But the lack of extras on the disc is a bit of a letdown. Herz, now 74, is still cranking out films and has more than a few horror flicks under his belt, and some commentary from him, or at least a short interview, would have been great a great addition. That’s a minor complaint, though—“The Cremator” remains weird enough on its own without any additives to bear watching.