Set in 1939 with the expected arrival in Prague of the German forces that had already been “invited” into Austria and other neighbouring countries, and with the film’s making in 1968 being halted for a period by the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, there is an inevitable political context to the horror of Juraj Herz’s film The Cremator and a deeper horror that goes beyond the gothic trappings of its extraordinary visual style.
Karl Kopfrkingl is a professional cremator at a Prague crematorium, who believes he is providing a valuable service for people. Why wait 20 years for a corpse to rot and return to its natural state, when a cremation can do it for you in only 75 minutes? Kopfrkingl is also concerned about his family, wanting to do more for them, and is keen to promote the benefits of his business so that they will also benefit from his occupation. But, it is a strange occupation and it is inevitable that the morbid aspects of the profession will seep into one’s everyday life - particularly when one is as enthusiastic about it as Karl is.
The Cremator makes the most of all the eerie aspects the situation and the location – gothic Prague at its darkest – as well as everything the nature of the character of Karl Kopfrkingl suggests, particularly as he is effectively portrayed by Rudolf Hrusínský. Not dissimilar to Orson Welles, Kopfrkingl has a particular smugness and self-assuredness of manner, convinced of the rightness of his beliefs in cremation, informed by ‘The Tibetan Book of the Dead’, and increasingly sure of his ability to save souls – a certainty that creates a number of delusions in his mind as the film progresses. His other characteristics also increasingly take on a more worrying aspect. His concerns about the purity of his body - not drinking, not smoking, having his blood checked on a regular basis – also take on a more sinister edge. The blood tests administered by Dr Bettelheim are ostensibly to check that he hasn’t contracted any disease from the dead bodies he works with, but in reality he is afraid of being tainted by his monthly visit to a prostitute. Later, under the influence of his friend in “the party”, and the he starts to become concerned that the purity of his blood retains some trace of Germanic roots and his bloodline is uncontaminated by any Jewish influence.
Maximising, the location, the profession of the character and the time period setting, the presence of death can be felt throughout The Cremator and the hypnotically flowing camerawork only serves to enhance the atmosphere further, with an eerie use of fish-eye lenses, flash inserts that force you to make uncomfortable associations (his family in the zoo at the start, mortuary scenes intercut with erotic pictures), cut-aways that overlap dialogues into unexpected locations, and close-ups of grotesque characters, including one mysterious, pale woman with long hair, who constantly skirts the edge of Kopfrkingl’s vision. Pushed even further through a haunting choral score, the whole film is a dazzling and effective demonstration of how to creating a mood of increasing unease and surreality.
The Cremator however is not just an exercise in abstract horror or even just a psychological portrait of a disturbed individual – or at least not in the conventional sense that its genre trappings might indicate. This is an extremely effective and coherent script that has a strong theme and imagery that all serves to illustrate the ideological absurdity of the idea of race purity. The idea of a cremator and concerns about the purity of one’s blood takes on a very real menace in the context of the imminent German invasion of Czechoslovakia. The sickness that affects the mind of Karl Kopfrkingl is more than the abstract dark horror the film appears to be - it’s a particular sickness that certainly affected a significant part of the population during this period and resulted in a much greater and real horror of betrayal of friends and family to death in concentration camps. This political context is perhaps rather too swamped in the gothic imagery here, but it is clearly there nonetheless and no more evident than in the sight of a deranged Kopfrkingl, with his slicked back hair making a strident speech to his congregation towards the end of the film. Furthermore, it would be hard to imagine such concerns were not uppermost in the director’s mind with the growing influence of the Russians in Eastern Europe at the time of the film’s making. Such considerations give The Cremator additional force and an importance than its categorisation as a straight gothic horror or black comedy might lead one to expect.
The Cremator is released on DVD in the UK by Second Run. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and the DVD is not region encoded.
The Cremator is strikingly photographed in high-contrast black and white – the blacks here showing up deep and detailed, with the whites luminous and radiating off the screen. The amount of detail in the striking close-ups is remarkable, with perfect tone and balance and marvellous clarity. In wider shots however, the detail disappears and the image becomes less focused and almost blurry. I don’t know whether this is a characteristic of the camera lenses used, the quality of the source materials or whether it is the transfer itself, but I don’t consider it a major issue. There is very little in the way of marks or damage on the print, although little scratches and flecks can be seen now and again. Likewise there is little in the way of digital artefacts, with only a glimmer of aliasing in one or two places.
The audio track, in Dolby Digital 2.0 is strong, with crispness, clarity and depth of tone, with only a touch of sibilance and the merest of crackles during louder sections of the soundtrack.
English subtitles are provided in a clear, white font and are optional. They are well positioned, moving to the top of the screen when they would otherwise obscure foreground information and can be clearly read at all times.
Obviously, there is not a great deal you can provide in the way of extra features for a film like this, but Second Run have nevertheless pulled together a number of features that present an in-depth and informed look at the film. On the disc itself is an Introduction by the Quay Brothers (12:22) who express their fascination with the film’s “visionary” aspects, its parallels with Svankmajer and discuss the techniques used in the film and the power it has. An accompanying booklet contains a fine essay by Daniel Bird, who takes an in-depth look at the subject of the film and the manner in which it was made, with excellent background information on its context and history. He sees a little more black humour and comedy in the film than I do however, comparing it to Dr Strangelove, when it seems rather more sinister than that.
Although the film’s extraordinary visual style and gothic horror trappings can be a bit overdone in places, the essential horror and the The Cremator’s true political message is nonetheless apparent. Once again, Second Run bring to DVD another rare, little-known East European film that certainly deserves a larger audience. This edition certainly does justice to the film, with a fine transfer and informative extra features.