Around the world in 50 films: #6 Czech Republic / Slovakia ‒ The Cremator (1969)
|May 1, 2012||Posted by Simon Brand under around the world in 50 films|
Perhaps I am cheating here by lumping two countries together, but the film was made when Prague existed in Czechoslovakia (which is now the Czech Republic) and the dialogue is in Czech, but the director is Slovak. The film is also considered part of the Czechoslovak New Wave, so I think you’ll allow me to join the two.
Why I chose this film:
I’ve only been getting into Czechoslovak cinema recently, despite the love for Jan Svankmajer’s shorts that I developed years ago. The Cremator seems to be a perfect coupling between the visual style of Svankmajer and the political mindset and absurdist humour of the New Wave. I hope it will lead more people into discovering another pocket of cinema.
The Cremator is a hard film to place. It is so original and bizarre that it is difficult to pidgeon-hole it into a certain genre or even mood. If I had to describe it in one sentence, it would be something like: “A pitch-black surrealist, political, horror-comedy.”
It follows the titular cremator, Kopfrkingl, as he slowly gets dragged into the arms of Nazism and descends into madness. He is obsessed with his duties, believing – owing to his love of Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead – that by cremating the deceased he is freeing their souls to go up into the ether. Prolific Czech actor Rudolf Hrusínský plays him absolutely perfectly. His voice fits the film to a tee; it is dark, deep and monotonous, but also sadistically gleeful, like a child past his years burning ants with a magnifying glass.
Kopfrkingl’s voice and mannerisms, together with the stark, angular image compositions and surreal imagery, create an atmosphere that is very dense and chilling but simultaneously underlined by the deliciously dark sense of humour of the dialogue and absurd characters: a husband gets frustrated by a wife who bursts into tears for ridiculous reasons whenever he takes her anywhere, and Kopfrkingl repeats sentence fragments throughout the film in a very Coenesque fashion. The comedy works in a similar way to that in cult classic Man Bites Dog, in that it will revolt some and greatly amuse others.
The sets and cinematography are stunning, clearly influenced by German expressionism and the absurdo-Gothic trappings of Svankmajer. Each image is thoughtfully composed and some – as the Brothers Quay state in their introduction to the film – are like daggers to the eyes.
The editing work is fantastically eccentric. If Black God, White Devil (#3 in this series) was edited by Edward Scissorhands, this was edited by a brilliant, mad surgeon who forgot to take his pills. Shot lengths are all over the place, some lasting half a minute or so and some not even a tenth of a second. This plays on the madness of the central character beautifully and adds to the unnerving atmosphere.
The film works in equal measures as a cutting political and historical portrait, a disturbing exploration of madness and (literal) God complex, a blacker-than-black comedy, and an atmospheric and chilling horror. If any of the above appeal to you, then put The Cremator right to the top of your watchlist: it is not a work to be missed.
Also recommended from Czech Republic / Slovakia:
Jan Svankmajer – Pretty much all of his films are worth a watch
Jaromil Jires - Valerie and her Week of Wonders, The Joke
Frantisek Vlacil - Marketa Lazarova, Adelheid
Jiří Barta - The Pied Piper of Hamelin, The Vanished World of Gloves
Oldřich Lipský - Happy End, Lemonade Joe
Jan Nemek - Diamonds of the Night, The Party and the Guests