“No one will suffer. I’ll save them all. “
Czechoslovakia, late 1930s: Karl Kopfrkingl likes his work at a crematorium in Prague. Obsessed with his duties, he reads the Tibetan book of the dead and believes he is not just cremating the dead, but liberating the souls of the departed. A Nazi invasion immanent, Karl descends into a mania that allows him to act out his disturbed beliefs.
The dark pearl of the Czechoslovak New Wave – The Cremator is often presented as being a stand out black comedy. However, although it is filled with a certain dark humour, it’s quickly clear that laughter is not it’s main forte. Rather, it’s the strange witches brew of horror, drama, comedy and experimental film genres that not only makes this film so uncomfortably weird, but a profoundly original film. Although a leading modernist director Juraj Herz also draws deeply upon the cinematic roots of German Expressionist film to create his fantastically distorted world. Through Stanislov Milota’s dazzling camerawork, we experience Karl’s journey into madness through a range of hallucinogenic visuals – including expressionistic lighting, superb deep focus, extreme close ups, fish eye lens, startlingly off-balanced compositions and jarring transitions. And when combined with the hypnotic sound design, haunting, opera-inspired score and a trance like, deep baritone narration – The Cremator becomes a breathtaking marriage of sound and visuals that truely worms its way inside your head. Rudolf Hrušínský as Karl the funeral director, literally and figuratively fills the frame with a masterfully grotesque performance. His delightfully chubby cherubic face hints at mirth and menace in equal parts as he draws us on from a portrait of a extremely quirky but well-mannered gentleman, through to the depths of a fully-realised monster.
Perhaps The Cremator may be not an easy watch for most viewers, but it does reward those who allow the film the time to express its own unique style. Lovers of Roman Polanski’s early works, particularly Repulsion* might find a similar, if grossly exaggerated, atmosphere here.