The Cremator: “No One Will Suffer”

One of the true dark glories of the Czechoslovak New Wave, The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, 1969) is the most popular and indelible work by the underappreciated Juraj Herz and remained a firm favorite of the director’s among his many films. Certainly, this ultimate exercise in ferocious black-comic satire—the tale of a crematorium manager in thirties Prague who descends into Nazi collaboration, murder, and madness—was the fullest realization of Herz’s macabre, grotesque, and ironic sensibilities. The film likewise epitomizes New Wave artistic and political audacity, with its stark, expressionistic black-and-white photography and queasy channeling of the psyche of totalitarianism, in both its Nazi and Stalinist forms. Made during the summer of 1968, as Czechoslovakia’s peaking liberalization movement fell victim to a Soviet-ordered invasion, The Cremator is a testament to a time of cultural freedoms that were soon to be put through the incinerator.

Born in Slovakia but largely active on the Czech side of the film industry, Herz (1934–2018) considered himself an outsider among the celebrated young directors of the sixties Czechoslovak New Wave. Whereas prominent New Wave filmmakers such as Jiří Menzel, Věra Chytilová, and Jan Němec had all attended the national film school, FAMU, at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, Herz’s training was in puppetry, in the academy’s theater faculty, DAMU, after which he wor­ked at the city’s Semafor Theatre and then gained a more hands-on apprenticeship in film as a bit-part actor and assistant director (in 1964 he worked in the latter capacity on Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’s Oscar-winning Holocaust drama The Shop on Main Street). Herz held his own against the New Wave on his directorial debut, The Junk Shop, a contribution to the 1966 portmanteau effort Pearls of the Deep that revealed his incipient eye for the bizarre or disquieting image—though when Pearls of the Deep proved overlong, Herz’s episode was removed and shown separately. The director’s first film, the well-received hospital murder mystery Sign of Cancer (1967), showed a filmmaker who was more interested in genre material than his New Wave contemporaries but shared their critical take on authority. His next feature, the musical-comic romp The Limping Devil (1968), was, for Herz, fatally compromised by preliminary censorship of its more risqué elements. But this disappointment was quickly followed by the film that truly confirmed Herz’s mastery and unlocked a darkly original vision.

Herz first heard about The Cremator, the third novel by noted Czech writer Ladislav Fuks, upon its publication in 1967 and was immediately captivated by its title (Spalovač mrtvol translates literally as “the burner of corpses”). He was disappointed, however, when he actually read the novel: if its title was fit for the marquee, its profuse dialogue and sparse description seemed unpromis­ing material for film adaptation. Nonetheless, the book’s grappling with the Holocaust—a theme repressed under the aggressive, anti-Semitic Stalinism of the fifties—no doubt resonated with Herz, himself a Jewish concentration-camp survivor, and he labored with Fuks on the screenplay for a year and a half.

In contrast to the studio cuts imposed on his first two features, Herz enjo­yed an “absolutely free hand” on The Cremator (as he recounts in his 2015 memoir Autopsie, cowritten with Jan Drbohlav). This freedom was enabled by the wider climate of political reform that culminated in the 1968 Prague Spring movement under Communist leader Alexander Dubček—an experiment in democratization unique in Czechoslovakia’s four-decade history of communism, aimed at giving a “human face” to the country’s Soviet-style socialist system. Within the state film industry, the impact of reform was felt in the formal abolition of censorship at Prague’s Barrandov Studios—the major outfit of its kind in Czechoslovakia—in March 1968, and in the increasing decentralization of production: by this time, films at the studio were being developed and produced in self-contained and effectively autonomous “creative units,” supervised by sympathetic artistic and intellectual figures. This was certainly the case with Jiří Šebor and Vladimír Bor’s unit, which produced The Cremator; Herz himself acknowledged the invaluable input of unit script adviser Věra Kalábová. Though the production straddled the Warsaw Pact invasion—the crew was on a break when the tanks rolled into Prague—the film was completed without hindrance (except for the fact that Herz had to coax actor Rudolf Hrušínský, an enthusiastic reformist who feared arrest, out of hiding). The one official intervention came when the head of Barrandov Studios forbade Herz from including a new ending filmed in response to the invasion, in which the beaming cremator protagonist reappears in a Prague now occupied not by the Nazis but by the Soviets. 

“Aptly for a film shot in three real—and active—crematoria, the sickly, suffocating air of the mortuary is immediately palpable and pervasive on-screen.”

Herz had always been determined that Hrušínský should play the lead role of Karel Kopfrkingl. A legend of Czech film and theater, descended from an acting family and on the boards since childhood, Hrušínský had a long, prolific, and varied career. The Cremator remains his signature role, though he is well-loved, too, for embodying irreverent national icon Josef Švejk in The Good Soldier Švejk (Karel Steklý, 1957) and its sequel, I Dutifully Report (Steklý, 1958), and for several films with Jiří Menzel. Plausible in both solemn and rambunctious roles, as sinister or amiable figures, Hrušínský was an actor of subtle details, resonant voice, and immense physical presence—all qualities he puts to insidious use as Kopfrkingl, an unforgettably unctuous incarnation of screen malevolence redolent of Peter Lorre’s soft-spoken menace.

Aptly for a film shot in three real—and active—crematoria, the sickly, suffocating air of the mortuary is immediately palpable and pervasive on-screen in The Cremator. As the movie opens, Kopfrkingl is visiting the zoo with his wife and children, on whom he dotes, in his oppressive, cloying manner. Quick-fire extreme close-ups alternate details of faces with the bodies of the prowling, watchful caged beasts. The viewer has no escape from Kopfrkingl, whose voice runs on continuously, with purring, hypnotic evenness, over the broken-up imagery. The proud paterfamilias ushers his “beautiful and blessed” kin to a mirror to admire themselves, but the image revealed is distorted, first by the ovoid shape of the mirror and then by the film’s own fish-eye-lens photography. As a semi-animated credits sequence starts, titles emerge from a still image of Kopfrkingl’s head that splits apart in multiple directions. This is a film focalized through its protagonist’s warped vision, literally sprung from his head, with the animated fractures also portending a story of increasing derangement and psychological doubling.

From the beginning, the ruptures in Kopfrkingl’s psyche are evident beneath his fastidiously smooth exterior. After the credits, he is seen giving a reception for prospective clients of his crematorium. A picture of simpering affability mixed with domineering tendencies and an early glint of mania, this self-announced “abstinent” is a ceaseless moralizer and homilist who chides smokers as he stubs out their cigars, and vaunts the “good and humanitarian” state that can allow for the civilized practice of cremation. Introduced early on is Kopfrkingl’s fascination with Tibet and his eccentric embrace of Buddhism and reincarnation, tied to a mystic understanding of his own trade as a business of liberating souls from their earthly tribulations. He is a figure of crankish beliefs and petit bourgeois proprieties, though also of typical middle-class male hypocrisies: his sentimental tributes to his “blessed” home are accompanied by regular visits to a brothel and advances toward a young female employee.

“The film resembles an essay on the uncanny given vivid cinematic flesh, blurring distinctions between life and death, person and object, even human and animal.”

Running deeper than these sexual vices is Kopfrkingl’s fascination with death, although this, too, has an erotic, necrophiliac aspect. Herz visualizes this preoccupation to particularly clammy and fearsome effect in a macabre carnival sequence that comes a third of the way into the film. Kopfrkingl’s children’s faces light up at the innocent open-air amusements, but he is unimpressed and takes them inside a claustrophobic chamber of horrors. Here, gruesome deaths from history are acted out by mechanical dummies, though the “dummies” are obviously real actors in zombielike makeup. As well as revealing Kopfrkingl’s titillation at such grisly fare, this scene suggests that the world of the dead, the inanimate, is just as vivid, as “alive,” for him as that of the living, perhaps more so. In a similar vein, Kopfrkingl lovingly tends to the corpses in his crematorium, using his own comb to adjust their hair. Even the attentions he bestows on the living are at times more befitting of inanimate things. In one chilling touch of foreshadowing, he “affectionately” tells his wife that he would like to hang her from the family Christmas tree amid the beautiful decorations. It is as though life for him is merely an imperfect forerunner to the composed beauty of the corpse.

The film resembles an essay on the uncanny given vivid cinematic flesh, blurring distinctions between life and death, person and object, even human and animal, and abounding with tenuously held identities and doppelgängers (Kopfrkingl’s wife, Lakmé, and the prostitute Dagmar are both played by Vlasta Chramostová, while Kopfrkingl, in his delirium, finally acquires a double in the guise of a Tibetan monk). Bodies break into fragments, as in the collage-style credit sequence or the close-up montages highlighting details of faces. Minor characters, like the meek prospective agent Mr. Strauss or the timid new employee Mr. Dvořák (the dual composer names a deliberate, bizarre touch), seem hardly less passive than dolls. As critic Jonathan Romney has observed, even Kopfrkingl himself—with his neat appearance, smooth, round face, and plastered-down hair—resembles a ventriloquist’s doll, spouting secondhand wisdom and idées fixes. Such a confused, imperiled state of human identity again reflects the distortions of Kopfrkingl’s vision, though it also expresses a surrealist sensibility, close in spirit and technique to the contemporaneous films of Jan Švankmajer (who had studied puppetry alongside Herz and remained a friend and sporadic collaborator). Of course, given the film’s setting in the late thirties, the uncanny imagery has additional associations of totalitarian violence and dehumanization.

Kopfrkingl’s warped perspective ties together neatly with the theme of Nazism. The cremator is inexorably drawn into collaboration by his old army friend Reinke, compelled into joining the party, spying on and denouncing others, and finally disposing of his partly Jewish family members. His complicity is secured by the enticement of a Nazi-patronized brothel and by the prospect of professional advancement but also, crucially, by the Nazi project’s seeming compatibility with his own preoccupations and perceptions. His obsession with cleanliness and preventing infection dovetails with the no less pathological ideology of racial hygiene, and the murders he ultimately commits are grotesque images of genocidally pursued “purity”: he hangs his wife in his beloved, pristine white bathroom, and hoses away his son’s blood—presumably “impure”—after killing him in the crematorium’s white, tiled basement. Kopfrkingl’s embrace of systematic mass murder in the belief that it is actually a liberation of suffering souls is an evocation of totalitarian hubris and delusion. Herz’s target here is as much Stalinism, with its humanist rhetoric and purported emancipatory aims, as Nazism. The director noted that a leaflet seen several times (promoting Kopfrkingl’s crematorium, a Nazi-sanctioned sports club, and the Nazi Party itself) was modeled on a Soviet Communist recruitment poster.

Fuks’s novel concludes with Kopfrkingl being institutionalized and then, in a pointed coda set after the war, sitting aboard a sanitary train and heralding the rise of a “new order.” The film abandons this for an ending in which Kopfrkingl is appointed technical supervisor for the “gas furnaces of the future,” his crematorial expertise now put in the service of the Holocaust. Much more climactic and outrageous than the novel’s ending, this finale also grows more organically from the story, offering a twinned crescendo of personal and political mania in which the core motif of cremation fuses naturally with the backdrop of Nazi terror. By the final scenes, Kopfrkingl’s rhapsodic speechifying has turned openly demented, with Hrušínský masterfully modulating his performance between its habitual soft-spokenness and a harsh, fevered, near-Hitlerian pitch. Believing himself a universal savior, deliverer of all the world’s souls from anguish, not to mention the next Dalai Lama—“No one will suffer,” he declares; “I shall save them all”—Kopfrkingl now personifies extreme totalitarian pathology, his saintly self-image at absolute odds with his evil actions.

The Cremator moves toward its crescendo with an insidious smoothness. Crucial to the film’s deceptively even textures is its tactic of blending one scene into another via trick shots that appear to belong to one scene but actually mark the opening of the next. This device, a testament to the precision of cinematographer Stanislav Milota and editor Jaromír Janáček, offers a cinematic equivalent to the seamless flow of Fuks’s novel, in which clear scene-setting is often absent, and imitates the creeping stealth with which oppressive power often installs itself. Contrasting with this smoothness is the blatant shock of the fast montages and the alarming, globular fish-eye shots. Fish-eye lenses were virtually unknown in Czechoslovakia at the time, and Herz later recalled having one imported, at great expense, from France. He eventually came to feel that these shots were “simplistic” and excessive, though they are used discriminatingly, tied chiefly to Kopfrkingl’s ripest moments of madness, and consistent with the extreme tenor of Milota’s monochrome visuals, all high contrasts, skewed angles, and lurching, stalking, first-person camera moves. Finally, the film’s impact is inseparable from the ethereal chill of Zdeněk Liška’s score, whose female vocals float above the action with what film scholar Peter Hames has called a “ghostly” innocence, evocative of the beautiful, spectral woman who forever haunts the edges of Kopfrkingl’s vision. The Cremator is hardly a subtle film, but it is superbly coordinated and controlled in its excesses.

The Cremator premiered in March 1969 and was well-received domestically and internationally, winning two awards from the Czechoslovak Film and Television Union and three (including best film) at the Sitges International Film Festival in Spain. However, as Czechoslovakia’s political tide turned, the film joined the ranks of officially condemned titles: according to critic Jan Lukeš, a 1970 assessment from Barrandov even accused it of suggesting that the Nazi ovens were the invention of a “Czech collaborator.” The film was withdrawn from circulation in 1973, and not seen again domestically until 1990, when it received a second theatrical run.

With The Cremator, Herz emb­arked on a bold new path of surreal, absurdist grotesquerie from which political circumstances largely diverted him. Soon afterward, he was forced to shelve an adaptation of the French writer Alfred Jarry’s absurd erotic novel The Supermale (1902) and two more Fuks adaptations. Against the odds, he succeeded in smuggling The Cremator’s excesses into his later films, notably the poisoned melodrama Morgiana (1972), the macabre fairy tales Beauty and the Beast (1978) and The Ninth Heart (1979), and the bloody satire Ferat Vampire (1982). Those inclined to shun outdoor attractions for the chamber of horrors should certainly seek these works out. But The Cremator remains Herz’s prize exhibit, unsurpassed in its stylistic assurance, satirical insight, and twisted audacity.