Saturday, May 23, 2009

Herz’s Cremator

The Cremator
Directed by Juraj Herz
Dark Skies/MPI

Cremating bodies was a steady business in Nazi dominated Czechoslovakia. It is the crematorium director who is wildly unstable, yet he seems to fit right in with the new powers-that-be. Personally psychosis parallels political madness in The Cremator, Juraj Herz’s macabre classic of the Czech New Wave, now available on DVD.

Karl Kopfrkingl might seem a bit off, but he certainly loves to talk. In contrast, his nervous wife speaks very little. She is also part Jewish, which will become significant, for obvious reasons. Together they seem like a happy if somewhat odd-looking couple, but the truth is much more sinister.

For Kopfrkingl, cremation is an act of spiritual purity, which he supports with dubious interpretations of Christian and Buddhist theology. Though presenting a picture of outer rectitude, Kopfrkingl visits a bordello once a month, after which he promptly visits his doctor for a blood test, using his professional contact with corpses as an unconvincing pretext.

Kopfrkingl suffers more from acute denial than from hypocrisy per se. His perception of reality is highly skewed, reflected by Herz’s jump cuts and warped perspectives. He has a morbid fascination with disease and deformity, which he indulges with an awkward family outing to gruesome waxworks exhibition. Kopfrkingl’s questionable mental state appears to be deteriorating, aggravated in part by the attempts of his former Austrian army comrade Walter Reinke to recruit him for the National Socialist party.

Even though Kopfrkingl is only half German, it seems they could use a man with his cremation experience. Though the self-absorbed cremator is initially a staunch democrat, believing in the promise of a modern “civilized” Europe, he ultimately succumbs to their dark vision of humanity. Unfortunately, that means his partly-Jewish wife and children will have to go, the hard way.

While Cremator has the unsettling foreboding and distorted visuals that suggest the horror genre, no actual murder or mayhem happens on-screen until relatively late in the picture. As Kopfrkingl, Rudolf Krusinsky’s often noted resemblance to Peter Lorre cannot help must establish an eerie mood of anticipation. He is a beady-eye ball of sinister mannerisms and creepy pseudo-intellectualism. This is not a man you would want to be alone with under any circumstances, and particularly not in the gothic crematorium where he “liberates” souls from their bodies through the use of his furnaces.

Herz’s Cremator is a surreal descent into bedlam, which takes on added layers of meaning, both from its explicit historical content and the political context in which it was produced. Finished after the Soviet invasion of 1968, Cremator actually had a brief theatrical release, but disappeared into the vaults shortly thereafter. While clearly not adhering to the aesthetics of Socialist Realism, Cremator could also be interpreted metaphorically in disturbing ways for the Soviet occupiers. Tellingly, the Nazis are often simply referred to as the “Party.”

Cremator is a disturbing little gem of a film, populated with flesh-and-blood monsters preoccupied with disease, mechanization, and the presumed “purity” of blood. Definitely a scary movie, it is a work of lingering horror, rather than sudden shocks.