Back when I was in college, I took a few film history courses and in one of them we watched scenes from this Czechoslovakian film The Cremator. They were pretty startling scenes, because they combined humor, horror, and mind blowing cinematography almost perfectly. I never thought I’d actually be able to track down a copy, but it was finally released to worldwide audiences just a few years ago, after almost 40 years. Thankfully, I can say that this movie didn’t disappoint me at all, and it didn’t just contain a few good scenes. The entire movie, for the most part, is solid and it is a fantastic example, if not THE example, of Eastern European surrealism.
Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínsky) is a cremator at a local crematorium in Prague. What’s unusual about Mr. Kopfrkingl is that he doesn’t look at his job as just a job, but a duty that goes beyond the physical realm. He believes that cremating those who have died releases their spirit into the ether faster than it would go if they decomposed naturally, and it is his responsibility to end the dead’s suffering as soon as possible. When the Nazis begin to make their way into the Czech government in the late 1930s, Kopfrkingl is introduced to the ideals of the party, taking his ideologies about suffering and the releasing of souls to the next level. It also allows some of his more secret and deep urges to be unleashed.
It’s difficult to put into words just how strange and unsettling this movie is, but I’m certain;y going to try. While this film is an example of surrealism, it is also a prime example of Czech New Wave, which was taking over their cinemas in the 1960s and early 1970s. One of the trademarks of this kind of film making is dark and absurd humor, which The Cremator has a lot of. While it’s a very funny film, it’s also a horrific film that deals with heavy thematic material and an awful view of history. I felt like I was being dragged across a line between laughing and cringing that lasted the entire movie, but that’s exactly the effect that was desired.
I can’t say this about most movies, but I can sure say it about this one. You don’t have to even watch this movie with the sound on to enjoy it. This is one of the most technically proficient movies I’ve ever seen, even without it going overboard. The editing and juxtaposition of different images tells a story about the characters without them even needing to say a word. One of the most talked about scenes in the movie is the very first scene where characters’ faces are quickly cut together with the mouths and eyes of animals in the zoo. A lot of the film is also shot through fish eye and wide angle lenses to distort the faces of the characters especially in the most intense of situations. It’s a masterpiece of film making and should be taught in schools all around the world, especially in terms of editing.
Other than just how great the movie looks, it also has a haunting story to tell about someone who is already disturbed pushed to his furthest point because of the Nazi regime. Taking this movie as a character study of Karl is probably how the movie should be watched. Sure it tells a story of history, but it’s how history shapes this particular person is what’s really interesting. The so called “justified” violence going on around him justifies his own violent desires, which helps him believe he’s still doing the proper thing. This makes you feel even stranger when you start laughing at some of the things he says or does.
The Cremator works as a horror movie, a dark comedy comedy, and a brilliant character study. It’s slowly becoming more and more recognized, as it should, since it is such a startling and jarring film, but also one that is significant in Czech film history. It will be my new mission to get as many people as I can to see this movie, even though it’s one that leaves you feeling a little weird way before it’s even close to being over.