Blu-ray: The Cremator

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Juraj Herz | CAST: Rudolf Hrusínský, Vlasta Chramostová, Jana Stehnová, Milos Vognic, Zora Bozinová, Jirí Menzel
RELEASE DATE: 4/21/20 | PRICE: DVD $22.99 Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: Juraj Herz’s 1965 short film “The Junk Shop”; short doc featuring Herz visiting filming locations; interview with film programmer Irena Kovarova; documentary about composer Zdeněk Liška; 1993 interview with actor Rudolf Hrušínský
SPECS: NR | 100 min. | Foreign language drama | 1.66:1 | monaural | Czech with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Grotesqueries abound in the brilliant 1969 Czech New Wave film The Cremator, which is half frenzied character study, half horror film. It’s a deeply disturbing work but one that also dazzles because of its compelling images, creative editing and an absolutely superb lead performance.

Set in the 1930s, the plot concerns a cremator, Mr. Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský), who is a precise, soft-spoken, obstinate man, prone to giving speeches about his craft — which he says “liberates” souls as it reduces the body to ash — and the world in general. The very disciplined Kopfrkingl is convinced by a neighbor that the Nazis, who are currently positioned on the border of Czechoslovakia, will liberate the country from Jewish influence. The eventual breakdown Kopfrkingl suffers finds him encountering an alter ego of himself (a Tibetan monk, also played by Hrusínský, who reminds him of his spiritual duties), as he decides he must kill his wife (who is Jewish) and his two children.

A nightmarish scenario to be sure, but filmmaker Juraj Herz — who proved expert in making horror/fantasy films in the years after Cremator — delivers both a thriller and a pitch-black social satire. He depicts a mind running off the rails in several ways. The most striking aspect is the editing, which presents constant dislocations of space and time. Kopfrkingl talks to one character in one place and suddenly, when the reverse shot is seen, he is in another conversation with a different person in another space.

At points the visuals are as cluttered as the walls of Kopfrkingl’s apartment (which are covered with what he deems fine art) and at others are chillingly simple (as when a cat chews on the dangling lace on a shoe worn by a woman who has just been hanged). The images are unforgettable, as they mingle a Westerner’s skewed view of Eastern spirituality with the raw sudden acts of violence that occur in the film’s third act.

Every aspect of Cremator is superb, including Zdeněk Liška’s haunting, and at times taunting, musical score.  But the one element that keeps us glued to the proceedings is the star performance by Hrusínský, who gives one of the creepiest performances in world cinema here and yet is always compulsively watchable, especially when indulging in tics like repeatedly touching up his slicked-back combover with a comb.

The film registers on both emotional and political levels, as it is rather obvious that Herz was making a comparison between the Soviets who invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the Nazis who invaded the country in the Thirties. Cremator was one of many incredibly powerful allegorical satires that were banned in Czechoslovakia during the late Sixties.

The Cremator (1969)

It’s a constant wonder to viewers watching from a historical and geographical distance that so many of these sharply allegorical films were allowed to be made during the easing of restrictions that occurred in the years before the Soviet invasion. Unlike many of his colleagues who made such allegories, though, Herz stayed in the country and was allowed to keeping make films through the Seventies and Eighties.

In a supplement included here (created for the German DVD release of the film), Herz takes us on a guided tour of the real crematoriums he used as a single setting in the film. It’s an odd little piece, as the videographers didn’t call ahead, and so we watch Herz trying to gain access to the interior of the second building.

Once he finally does, we see the updated interiors and find out that the restored film has been screened for the public on the premises. At the tail end Herz finally discusses the picture, saying it was one of few times he ever had “total freedom” making a film. “There was no interference at all.”

This is contradicted by programmer Irena Kovarova, who notes in a video interview found here that Herz shot a finale for the film that he wasn’t allowed to add, in which the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia is recreated, and Kopfrkingl is present in the crowd. She elaborates this ending, saying that “Kopfrkingl left with the Germans and came back with the Soviets… it’s all the same.”

Kovarova also discusses the fact that Herz was a Jew and had served as a prisoner in a concentration camp. (He died in April 2018 at 83 years old.) His nuclear family survived the camps, but several dozens of his relatives died. These facts doesn’t radically alter what we see in the movie, but they do explain the extremely dark nature of the humor in it.

Also included in this Criterion release is Herz’s first short, “The Junk Shop” (1965), which creates its own delightfully absurdist universe and shows how Herz was soaking up all of the other arts while working as an assistant to other filmmakers, after having attended the Academy of Performing Arts. (One of his classmates was Jan Svankmajer; stop-motion animation appears in Herz’s short.)

A short portrait of Hrušínský shows him working in a stage play and reflecting on his long show business career. Actor-filmmaker Jiri Menzel (Capricious Sunmer), who played Kopfrkingl’s assistant in Cremator, describes his colleague in wonderfully colorful terms, calling him “the Czech Jean Gabin.”

The most eye-opening inclusion in this release is a full-length documentary about composer Zdeněk Liška. Liška transformed the films and TV series he scored with music that was, depending on the project, neo-classical and/or devotional, electronic and most definitely playful, and often completely counter to standard movie music, which gives the viewer emotional cues. The documentary covers Liška’s life, his cult followings in both the Czech Republic and England, and the artists who attest to the fact that his music made their films better — including Herz, Svankmajer, and the Quay Brothers (who used to record Liška’s soundtracks on audio tape when attending screenings of the films he scored).

It is stressed throughout that Liška made his own rules — “he’d pay absolutely no heed” to what the filmmakers told him they wanted, and they’d still be delighted with the results. One Czech DJ notes that he has tried to keep the composer’s work alive by circulating mixtapes. This lively documentary functions as a sort of visual mixtape, as the historical “flow” stops every few minutes so we can hear (and see) Liška’s contribution to various films, including, of course, The Cremator.

Buy or Rent The Cremator

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”