Spalovac Mrtvol / Cremator (1969)

Director: Juraj Herz
Starring: Rudolf Hrusinsky, Vlasta Chramostova, Jane Stehnova. Czechoslovakia. 1h 47m
Based on : The Cremator by Ladislav Fuks

A darkly comedic gothic misadventure into the psyche of a brilliant deranged lunatic. After being lost for several years, Cremator has been resurrected by the Brothers Quay, who painstakingly sourced the film and worked on its resurrection, this extraordinary intense meditation of the political horrors of 1930’s Europe are fantastically chilling in this early Czech New Wave film.

Opening in a whimsical manner with Karl Kopfrkingl (Hurusinsky) taking his family on a tour of a local zoo, Karl makes the assumption that cages are for mute people, Karl likes to make assumptions, all based on his new philosophy that’s highly influenced by the Dali Lama and his haphazard research into Tibetan Philosophy. The film continues with his constant internal monologue, he’s strangely uplifting with an idealistic view of his family and the changing world around him,Herz uses fisheye lenses and crazy angles that show Karl’s views are quite distorted. The world passes Karl by quite jovially but in deepest darkest Prague Karl enjoys his work cremating bodies a bit too much, day in and day out there’s a process turning from family business to factory process. Business is profitable and he begins to believe that only through the cremation process can souls pass through a cycle of reincarnation, Karl certainly feels as if he’s doing the world a favour.

Karl’s new concept couldn’t really arrive at a better time, 1930’s Europe was just breaking out into World War II and there’s a sudden need to be as Aryan as possible. After an old friend, Reinke (Prachar) visits and points out that Karl has some German heritage, he could do well, the the Nazi’s are happy to use his cremation process but Mrs Kopfrkingl is Jewish and therefore the children are Jewish and this angers Karl and he begins to enact a devilishly cold plan as he descends into a darken madness.

My dear children.. Do not fear cremation.

The film transcends from something quite good-humoured despite the touch of death at every scene, into a horrific and blood thirsty. Karl is such an interesting character, at first it’s easy to dismiss his finds, as a man who’s discovered a few age philosophy and is happy to explore and share but scene by scene that smile turns into lunacy, it’s so subtle that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it ticks over from one to another but before you know it, there were bodies everywhere. Despite how crazy things get the movie is quite convincing and has a lot of artistic licence chucked in, possibly why the Quay’s were so in love with the movie, an elegant and enigmatic woman wanders around looking deathly beautiful, a metaphor of death or dying, who knows, but this curious vignettes adds a sullen darkness to an already questionable movie.

Hertz has described the movie as expressionist horror, and at times it echos similar movies such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919), as it reaches into the depths of a madman, both use wide eyed angles to distort a natural perspective, and playful transitions help get inside characters personas and minds, while Karl is visiting the Zoo with his family the camera zooms in on the animals then his family, the wrinkles on an elephants trunk then the wrinkles on Karls face, he said the zoo is for mute people..

Although I personally I couldn’t find the humour in this fairly unsettling and disturbing movie, I do find it hard to laugh at a man who unravels a pretty peaceful philosophy into a method of execution and then exacts that on his own family, Some may find it’s a bit heavy handed and somehow Karls romanticism with death swings the film in a different direction. The shift between black comedy and psychological horror seems to be done in bad taste but it’s important to realise that this is just a touch of the “you have to laugh” mentality from Herz, a Jewish survivor who adapted a tough Eastern European sense of humor while he jovially looks back at a dark chapter in Europe.

Rating: 7/10

Related: Repulsion (1965), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919),
Lists: 69 from 1969, 60 from the 1960s, A-Z of Czechoslovakia Cinema, Mortuary Films, Czech New Wave,

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