Blu-ray Review: THE CREMATOR Will Scorch Your Soul
For the most part, films take many years to create, marinate, produce, and release upon the world, in varying steps.
Filmed in 1968 and released in 1970, The Cremator was Czechoslovakia's submission to the 1970 Academy Awards (Foreign Film) before winning Best Film, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography at Sitges in 1972. This film was adaptated from the novel of the same title by Ladislav Fuks.
A bit more background, which may help one understand this film: The Cremator was helmed by Czech New Wave director Juraj Herz (1978's Beauty and the Beast, Habermann), who was a Holocaust survivor. (His immediate family managed to survive as well, but other extended relatives were not as fortunate.)
The film itself centers on the... antihero and titular cremator, Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky, The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians) in late 1930s Czechoslovakia. Kopfrkingl is a man who's the king of his own world, who's determined to keep making more money while spouting the virtues of cremation and how it cleanses and purifies the soul in order to move on to reincarnation. Oh, and he really does believe that death is the only way to end suffering. Here, we have the makings of a formidable villain.
Kopfrkingl is a megalomaniac and delusional, domineering man who cannot stop talking --- even to the camera. He breaks the fourth wall on a number of occasions with incessant theoreticizing and deepening hypocrisy --- putting his wife on a virtual pedastal while visiting the local brothel and buying the services of a young woman who looks a lot like her (notably, both roles are played by the same actress, Vlasta Chramostova.
He's really quite handsy with people, too, and not just his wife. He caresses the shoulders, necks, and even the backs of heads within his reach, whether of people who unfortunately work for this blowhard or not. It's cringe-inducing, and I'm sure it's meant to be. Hrusinsky is an oppressive, inescapable force. He's also more sucessful at channeling Peter Lorre than any other actor I've ever seen.
At a reception he gives to convince people to cremate themselves (in the future) or their loved ones --- it only takes 75 minutes to get to Heaven, versus 20 years of decomposing in the earth --- he meets up with old war buddy and current Nazi Reineke.
Without spoiling too much, it isn't long before Kopfrkingl goes full Third Reich himself.
The Cremator is a difficult film to watch, at least for most people, but there are elements of genius in the inventive and beautiful ways that the film is shot in many scenes. From the dangling of feet and the cat playing with the shoes of the deceased, to the distortion of faces within mirrors, there's a lot of terrible and fascinating beauty on display.
Cinematography by Stanislav Milota and music by Zdenek Liska (who worked steadily and was the main composer for Jan Svankajer and the Brothers Quay) add a great deal to the film, to understate things. Jump-cut, quick-draw editing by Jaromir Janacek further adds to the surrealness of The Cremator and the resulting high dive into evil and madness.
Film scholars and critics far more versed in world cinema have had more profound things to say about this film than myself, but the story can surely be seen as a sort therapy for Herz, a way to make sense of the banality of evil inflicted upon his family and others through art.
There are references to gallows humor, and sure, they're there, but I never laughed or came close. The Cremator is filled with queasy images, implications, murder, and coming genocide. It's heavy. I'm not sure I will ever watch it again.
As far as picture and sound go, The Cremator is pristine. Hats off to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to spearheading this fantastic 4K restoration. As far as special features go, I enjoyed the doc on composer Liska the most.
- New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- High-definition digital transfer of The Junk Shop, director Juraj Herz’s 1965 debut short film
- Short documentary from 2011 featuring Herz visiting filming locations and recalling the production of The Cremator
- New interview with film programmer Irena Kovarova about the style of the film
- Documentary from 2017 about composer Zdeněk Liška featuring Herz, filmmakers Jan Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers, and others
- Interview with actor Rudolf Hrušínský from 1993
- New English subtitle translation
- PLUS: An essay by film scholar Jonathan Owen
- New cover design by La Moutique
If you'd like to add The Cremator to your home Blu-ray or DVD library, head over to the Criterion Collection here.
- Juraj Herz
- Ladislav Fuks (novel)
- Ladislav Fuks (screenplay)
- Juraj Herz (screenplay)
- Rudolf Hrusínský
- Vlasta Chramostová
- Jana Stehnová
- Milos Vognic