Review: 'Spalovač mrtvol' (The Cremator)

Review: 'Spalovač mrtvol' (The Cremator)

A haunting portrayal of the banality of evil, Juraj Herz’s Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator) is often cited as one of the best Czech horror films (as well as one of the best Czech films, period). And while it isn’t a conventional horror film – it even features some twisted dark humor – the praise is justified; this is a chilling, deeply unsettling film, and a landmark from the Czech New Wave.

Spalovač mrtvol stars much-loved actor Rudolf Hrušínský in a decidedly atypical role as Karel Kopfrkingl, the titular crematorium worker. “It takes 75 minutes to turn a body into ash,” he proudly declares, “freeing the soul into the ether.”

Kopfrkingl initially only seems to be eccentric, regaling his wife Lakmé (Vlasta Chramostová) and two children (Jana Stehnová and Miloš Vognič), with texts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Soon, however, we see him devolve deeper and deeper into madness. There is no clear line here, as with Jack Torrance in The Shining; Herz simply peels back the layers until we see the character in a new light.

The film is set in the late 1930s, just as German forces are taking control of Czechoslovakia; Kopfrkingl’s descent is enhanced by the rise of Nazi power. He meets an old army friend, Reinke (Ilja Prachař), a German official who recruits Kopfrkingl into his ranks. Many of the cremator’s friends and colleagues are Jewish, and others are anti-German, making Karel the perfect spy.

The utterly casual nature with which Kopfrkingl becomes a Nazi collaborator is chilling; he doesn’t seem to care about his actions, casually informing on his Jewish friends without even considering the ramifications, letting the German officials dictate his witness account. He doesn’t even think twice about turning on his family when informed about their impure blood; meek and innocent in appearance, Kopfrkingl is Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ incarnate.

Astute viewers will know where the cremator fits within the Nazi plans, but this doesn’t diminish the absolute horror of the film’s climactic scene, when even the German official is taken aback by Kopfrkingl’s…ideas. That this chilling scene also manages to suggest darker-than-dark humor is a testament to director Herz, who perfectly straddles the line between terror and irony and provides both in effective doses.

Hrušínský is terrifying in the lead; it’s incredible to think that he portrayed Kopfrkingl just a year after he was the prototypical Czech male in Rozmarné léto. That film’s director, Jiří Menzel, shows up here in a small role as Kopfrkingl’s assistant.

Spalovač mrtvol is a masterpiece of atmosphere, conveying the horror of the Holocaust through style rather than story; stark black & white cinematography by Stanislav Milota is a real standout, while unusual rapid-fire editing by Jaromír Janáček helps to keeps the viewer off balance.  A terrific opening title sequence using paper cutouts is reminiscent of (and might well be) the work of Herz contemporary and sometimes-collaborator Jan Švankmajer.

Music is also a strong point. The haunting score was composed by Zdeněk Liška and performed by the Filmový Symfonický Orchestr under František Belfín; the main theme is particularly memorable.

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