Criterion Collection: The Cremator | Blu-ray Review
Criterion restores a cornerstone of the Czech New Wave with Juraj Herz’s classic The Cremator, a chilly dark comedy set in 1930s Prague which features a morbid, fanatical crematorium manager who embraces the rise of Nazism. Featuring an eerie performance from Rudolf Hrusinsky, its paralleling of totalitarian ideology aligns with the rising nationalistic fervor spanning the globe today.
Shot and edited with striking, idiosyncratic frames by editor Jaromir Janacek and cinematographer Stanislav Milota, it’s an exercise in elegant morbidity, a Kafkaesque classic on the cyclical formations of dangerous regimes.
Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, crematorium manager Karel Kopfrkingl (Hrusinsky) finds himself swept up by the radicalization beginning to sweep Europe. Touting the Buddhist beliefs, he has gleaned from a Tibetan tome he carts around, including at an opening party at his crematorium, he believes cremating the dead is the only way to liberate human souls and death itself is the only way to alleviate human suffering. As Nazi forces gather at the Czech border, Kopfrkingl begins to act on his outlandish beliefs, which includes eradicating his family.
Herz’s body of work would go on to amass cult followings, but he never received the international acclaim of his fellow Czech New Wave alums, among them eventual Hollywood luminaries such as Milos Forman and Ivan Passer.
Others, like Jiri Menzel, Jan Nemec and Vera Chytilova have been resuscitated and recuperated through several generations, while most of Herz’s work has been unavailable in the US (although some of his later work is more readily available, while 1972’s Morgiana, a cult favorite channeling Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? has long been available in the UK, alongside his signature masterpiece).
While the editing and cinematography of The Cremator (not to mention a marvelous score from Zdenek Liska) may glean most of the film’s praise, Hrusinky’s performance channels a mix between the passively sinister Peter Lorre and the aggressive hostility of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Kopfrkingl’s collapsing of eating with death, the only release of suffering, in his mind, is as chilling as the eventual eugenic distinctions of refined races, wherein German blood equals sensitivity and appreciation of the arts. Once Kopfrkingl confirms his wife and children’s Jewish heritage will squash their inclusion in the inevitable German occupation, their demise is all but cemented. While retrospect allows one to appreciate The Cremator’s comically monstrous undertones, it’s dismaying sense of dread has only become more potent over time.
Film Rating: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆