A brand of Mitteleuropa murkiness and dark, jarring surrealism pervades what remains Juraj Herz’s most acclaimed work.
A family at the zoo. Close-ups of the parents’ eyes and mouths intercut with leopard fur, snake skin, crocodile hide, predators’ teeth. The two kids monkeying around in a cage. As they leave, it’s the occasion for a warped family portrait in a fisheye mirror above the gate. Then the animated credits. Faces split into four and dismembered body parts pile up around the names on the screen. From the start, The Cremator is about the inhuman, contaminating the human shape through parallels with the animal realm, or hacking it up into its meaningless, soulless constituents.
Director Juraj Herz had studied puppetry and theatre before coming to filmmaking and was a friend and collaborator of Jan Ŝvankmajer. Not surprising then that a similar brand of Mitteleuropa murkiness and dark, jarring surrealism pervades what remains Herz’s most acclaimed work. The interest in puppetry shows up in the film in the form of a waxwork dummies show that Karl Kopfrkingl, the cremator of the title, and his family, visit during an outing at a fair. The twist here is that the dummies are played by heavily made-up live actors mimicking the jerky, mechanical movements of automata. Again, here, the worlds of the animate and the inanimate are disturbingly blurred.
There is indeed something unwholesomely waxy in the texture of Kopfrkingl’s skin, something unnaturally neat in his greasy comb-over, something excessively glassy in his bulbous eyes. With unctuous, sinister bonhomie, Kopfrkingl guides us through his work at the crematorium – ‘The Temple of Death’ – all the while imparting his Buddhist-inspired belief that cremation is the sign of a humane society, as it helps ‘liberate’ the souls of the dead faster; his voice provides an oppressive near-constant explanation for everything we see, leaving little room for other characters to speak.
The only other voice that prevails is that of engineer Reinke, who urges Kopfrkingl to listen to his German blood and join the ‘Party’. This is 1939, the Nazis are gaining ground, and as Reinke insists, promising social promotion and the advantages of a private members’ club, Kopfrkingl soon comes to twist his earlier spiritual beliefs into the notion that Jews are poor souls that need to be liberated sooner rather than later through efficient mechanised cremation. Soon, he is visited by mystical apparitions and his exalted fanaticism threatens the safety of those around him.
Filmed in 1968, the film’s probing of the past found a chilling echo in current events. In August of that year, the shooting was interrupted by the Russian invasion. But although it was caught between the two ugly faces of twentieth-century European totalitarianism, The Cremator is about far more than its explicit historical reference and it cannot be reduced to a denunciation of the genocidal impulses of Nazi Germany specifically, or of totalitarian regimes in general. Neither can it simply be seen as a portrayal of a man’s increasingly deranged mental state. Much more disturbingly, Herz brings to the surface what lies under both the personal and historical madness, the predatory beastliness, the grotesque abomination, the pustulous corruption of human life, of which Kopfrkingl’s diseased mind and Nazi Germany or Communist Russia are simply the most visible manifestations.
In spite of such subject matter, The Cremator is no morbid downer and in addition to the astonishing visual inventiveness there is also a ferocious sense of humour in the details – Kopfrkingl and his children eagerly listening behind the bathroom door for the sound of their Christmas carp being killed with a mallet or the cat playing with the undone ribbon on his hanged mistress’s shoe. Disorientating, disquieting and darkly humorous, The Cremator remains one of the most richly resonant celluloid nightmares.