Country and Year: Czechoslovakia (1968)
The films of the Czech New Wave are simultaneously accessible, experimental, and incisive — from the devastating Closely Watched Trains, to the formal freakout and confrontational sexual politics of Daisies, to the pop art satire of Who Wants To Kill Jessie?. Thanks to Second Run’s recent DVD release, I may now add Juraj Herz’s legendary (and previously hard-to-find) film The Cremator to that list.
The Cremator is a deeply disturbing film that examines how and why people accede to totalitarianism and genocide, a topic that unfortunately is as timely now as it was in 1968. The film tells the tale of Roman, a family man who runs a crematorium in the late 1930s. Despite his Austrian heritage, Roman fancies himself a Czech man of culture and refinement; he is captivated by classical music and treasures his copy of a book about Tibetan Buddhism. At heart, however, Roman is an entrepreneur and a sycophant, preoccupied with his station in society and how he is viewed by his neighbors. Obsessed with cleanliness, he goes to the doctor for a physical following each visit to a brothel, but, tellingly, lies to the doctor and claims he has been faithful to his wife. As the Nazis begin to take power, the cremator reevaluates his relationship with all that he claimed to hold near and dear to his heart — not least of all his half-Jewish wife and quarter-Jewish children. Soon the inconceivable becomes reality, as the cremator commits abominable acts and rationalizes them through a wilfull misreading of Buddhist tenets.
Director Juraj Herz employs the visual vocabulary of horror films and German Expressionism — chiaroscuro lighting, spectral figures, double exposures, etc. (The resemblance of lead actor Rudolf Hrusínský to Peter Lorre can hardly be considered a coincidence.) Notwithstanding these obvious influences, Herz’s images have a look all their own, alternating between distorted, funhouse-mirror closeups and breathtaking, meticulously composed wide-angle shots.
However, the film’s rapid, intentionally jarring editing rhythms are more akin to Sergei Eisenstein than Mario Bava. Herz uses montage techniques throughout the film, most obviously when he inserts shots of classical artwork that comment on the narrative. To further jar the audience, Herz also regularly inserts quasi-abstract, extreme closeups of various character’s body parts. In tandem, the creepy imagery and unusual editing keep the viewer deeply unsettled at all times.
Herz is also adept at filling each scene with telling little details. For example, the title character exhibits his controlling nature through his habit of grabbing people by the backs of their necks to lead them around. Likewise, the artifice of a Nazi “casino” that the cremator visits is exemplified by the unnatural bleached blondes who populate it.
These are far from the only stylistic tricks in Herz’s book. For starters, the film boasts an animated title sequence that anticipates the early work of Terry Gilliam. Also, the centerpiece of the film is a trip by the cremator’s family to a carnival of horrors, which provides Herz with the opportunity to engage in all sorts of visual razzle-dazzle. And, if nothing else, the film is a masterpiece of casting — almost every actor in the film appears to have stepped out of a Charles Addams drawing. Moreover, Herz does not shy from overt symbolism; throughout the film, the cremator is haunted by a woman who clearly represents Death.
Remarkably, these flourishes never overwhelm the narrative or distract from the film’s grim message. The Cremator thus stands as an implicit rebuke to the hopelessly literal-minded and unimaginative “message” pictures that Hollywood unleashes each year at Oscar time.
Second Run has presented The Cremator in a handsomely packaged, anamorphic DVD in the PAL format. It features insightful liner notes by Daniel Bird that provide useful historical background into the making of the film, and an introductory segment by the Quay Brothers. The Cremator is highly recommended viewing.
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Filed under: Movie Reviews and DVD Reviews and Rating: Good ★★★ and DVD News: Czechoslovakia and Movie Reviews: Czechoslovakia and Contributors: Jeff and DVD Companies: Second Run