Once seen, the opening credits of Juraj Herz’s pitch-black satire The Cremator (1969) are not soon forgotten. At the beginning of the handcrafted, collage-style sequence, a still close-up of the protagonist’s head, from the eyes up, takes over the screen, only to break apart in multiple directions, revealing new credits with each fresh rupture. As the titles continue to roll, a cascade of cutout body parts fills the frame, followed by still other split-apart heads. Thus Herz slyly acquaints the viewer with the deeply fractured psyche and macabre worldview of Karel Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínský), a crematorium manager in 1930s Prague whose mad obsessions with death and purity soon lead him to sign up with the ascendant Nazi Party.
When it came time to commission a cover image for our edition of Herz’s film (available now), the Criterion art department had this section of the movie top of mind. The assignment promptly went to La Moutique—the design studio run by Ecuadorian-born, Brooklyn-based artist Juan Miguel Marin—an outfit that has made a specialty of wildly surrealistic, collage-based posters and album art, an aesthetic sensibility that had struck Criterion’s Eric Skillman as the perfect match for Herz’s brand of gallows humor. And right out of the gate, Skillman and Marin discussed the opening credits as a rich source of visual cues for the cover, “particularly the collages of cutout body parts juxtaposed with Karel Kopfrkingl’s equally eerie and charming face,” Marin says.
As the design process kicked into gear, the “subtle imperfections” of the credit sequence proved particularly inspiring to Marin, a quality he sought to channel by taking his own hands-on mixed-media approach. “At some point, the work goes through the computer, but my goal is to always spend as much time as possible away from the screen and get my hands dirty—literally,” he says. “Once I had collected a solid library of stills from the film—of symbolic objects, such as the comb and pipe; skin; and powerful frontal shots of Kopfrkingl—I proceeded to print them on newsprint. Additionally, I created some abstract textures with India ink and a rubber roller that might resemble the look of burnt concrete or ash.” It’s a palette that alludes not only to the film’s high-contrast black and white but also to the incinerating heat that is Kopfrkingl’s hair-raising stock-in-trade.
Having scoured the entirety of The Cremator for evocative images to play with in the style of the credit sequence, Marin then gave himself free rein to experiment, assembling cutouts in various combinations and degrees of abstraction, in addition to trying out more traditional layouts incorporating wholly intact stills from the film. (Some of these preliminary designs can be seen here, along with photographs of the work underway at La Moutique.) But eventually one crafty, creepy image—in which Kopfrkingl’s head is closely surrounded by disembodied limbs, his beloved comb, and handwritten titles—did rise to the top of the heap, as the most expressive summation of the movie’s particular atmosphere of derangement and mannerly menace. “Even though I have a few favorites,” Marin says, “the final cover checks all the boxes for me.”