Last Thursday, I was asked to introduce a student screening of Juraj Herz’s gleefully macabre 1968 film The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol), having already written about Second Run’s DVD for Sight & Sound (the distributor helpfully provides a facsimile here).
This is roughly how it went:
I’ve been asked to introduce The Cremator, partly because I wrote a piece about it last year for Sight & Sound, but also because I’m the producer of the BFI’s new DVD box set of all of Jan Švankmajer’s short films, which is out next month. And although Švankmajer didn’t work on this film, there are several strong links between him and Juraj Herz, its director – and if you like Švankmajer, you’ll probably love this.
I first discovered the film in Paris in the early 1990s. I was browsing through the French equivalent of Time Out, and spotted something called L’Incinerateur de cadavres, or The Corpse Incinerator. I didn’t recognise the director’s name, but it was made in Czechoslovakia in 1968, which was a promising combination. So I popped in to see it, and after an enthralling ten minutes or so the film stopped, and there was much running-around and shouting in French (which in my case was good enough to cope with subtitles but not to understand what had actually gone wrong). And then the manager came in and said that due to a technical failure they couldn’t show any more of the film and we should all get our money back.
And I honestly don’t think I had the chance to see the rest of the film for nearly fifteen years, when it finally came out on DVD in the Czech Republic in late 2005. Thankfully, it had English subtitles, so I ordered it – and to say the film lived up to its first few minutes is the understatement of the decade. So I called Sight & Sound and said “You’ve got to let me give this a long DVD review!”, and amazingly enough they said yes. So I wrote it, sent it in, and they said that they’d just found out that it was coming out on a British label in April 2006, so could I rewrite it nearer the time – which was great, as the British DVD turned out to have this wonderfully mad intro by the Quay Brothers, so I was able to mention that too.
So what was it that so impressed me? Well, I’ll be as general as possible as I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers, but it seemed to me to be an almost perfectly achieved piece of authentic Gothic horror, with every single element – subject, script, cinematography, editing, design, music and an amazing lead performance – working together in extraordinary harmony considering that this was the work not only of a near-beginner but someone who hadn’t even gone to film school.
Although my Sight & Sound piece calls it “one of the most memorable films of the Czech New Wave”, Juraj Herz’s work doesn’t really fit neatly alongside the better-known New Wave films such as Miloš Forman’s Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball, Jiří Menzel’s Closely Observed Trains, Věra Chytilová’s Daisies, Jan Němec’s The Party and the Guests and many others.
Those directors came from a largely film-oriented background, whereas Herz studied puppetry and theatre – along with Svankmajer, who was a fellow student. Afterwards, they did military service together and then worked in multimedia theatre, which is where Herz first became involved with film. In the mid-1960s he worked as an assistant director and began directing shorts, and made his first feature, a detective story called Znameni raka, or Sign of Cancer, in 1967. He also appeared in two Svankmajer shorts – The Last Trick and The Flat – if you’ve seen The Flat, he’s the man in the bowler hat with the chicken who pops up halfway through.
So when the Prague Spring of 1968 came about Herz just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right training – and was given a heaven-sent opportunity to make a film according to his own principles and instincts. He’d been developing a script based on Ladislav Fuks’ novel The Cremator, and although there were certain aspects of the novel that he disliked, he realised that this was a make-or-break moment for his career – so he started shooting the film in the summer.
As with most aspects of Czechoslovak life, shooting was interrupted by the Soviet invasion on August 21st, but Herz was able to complete it to his original plans, though he did shoot an alternative ending that was felt to be a little too near the political knuckle, and that wasn’t used. It opened in Prague in 1969 and became one of the biggest hits of that year – which is quite revealing of the prevailing mood of the time.
But after that initial success, it was banned – and by that stage the West had largely lost interest in new Czech films. It belatedly opened in Britain in 1971, but the reception was fairly muted, and it quickly disappeared: it was never shown on television or released on VHS, and the DVD only came out last year, nearly four decades after it was made. We can talk about the film in more detail after the screening, but I’d just like to highlight its most outstanding features.
First of all, because it’s impossible to miss, is the performance by Rudolf Hrušínský, one of the great Czech character actors, in the title role of crematorium owner Karl Kopfrkingl. You would never want to be trapped in a lift with this man – right from his very first appearance, there is no doubt whatsoever that he is completely barkingly insane, but you can’t take your eyes off him, and not just because he’s hardly ever off the screen. He has a number of personal fetishes, from obsessive-compulsive cleanliness to Tibetan Buddhism with a heavy dash of sexual deviance, and he genuinely believes that cremation leads to the ultimate purification of the soul. I won’t say any more about that except to add that Herz spent time in a Nazi concentration camp, with all that that implies.
Visually and conceptually, the film is daringly in-your-face – the compositions are often angular and distorted, sometimes shot using a fisheye lens. There’s lots of shock-cutting, often to close-ups so tight that it’s not immediately obvious what they are, and the aim throughout is to disorientate and unsettle. And the music is glorious – I think Zdeněk Liška is one of the cinema’s all-time great composers, and he’d be right up there with Herrmann, Morricone and Nino Rota if he hadn’t been Czech, and this is one of his best ever scores. There’s a wonderfully soaring central theme which might seem wildly inappropriate until you realise that this is almost certainly how Kopfrkingl himself sees the world. When he launches into some of his more rhapsodic speeches, Liska accompanies them with this bizarre a cappella chorus, absolutely in tune with the timbre of his voice.
You’ve probably picked up by now that this is not a fluffy light comedy, but neither is it an out-and-out horror film – even though parts of it get closer to pure horror than most other genre pieces. It’s actually a comedy so black that many have wondered whether or not they should find it funny, and Herz said that he’s been fascinated by the different reactions it’s had across Europe. “In Prague, people were depressed; in Slovakia, they laughed; in the Netherlands, it was a comedy from beginning to end; while in Italy, the spectators went from the cinema right to the bar because cremation is just impossible, awful and unacceptable in their country.” And whether you find the film hilarious or terrifying, or even impossible, awful and unacceptable, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re not going to forget it in a hurry. And on that note, I think we should start it.
There’s a surprising amount of excellent critical commentary available online - Senses of Cinema recently published Adam Schofield’s exhaustive A Black Pearl of the Deep: Juraj Herz’s The Cremator, while Kinoeye has run pieces on Herz’s work by Daniel Bird (To Excess: The Grotesque in Juraj Herz’s Czech Films), and an interview with the director by Ivana Košuličová. Sadly, Herz’s work remains largely off-limits to non-Czech speakers: aside from his 1979 take on Beauty and the Beast (Panna a netvor), all the DVDs I’m aware of are unsubtitled.