Director Juraj Herz, whose 1968 film Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator) is often cited as one of the best Czech movies ever made, has passed away at the age of 83.
Slovak actor Andrej Hryc, who worked with Herz throughout his career, announced the director’s death via Facebook. Česká televize’s Daniel Maršalík confirmed the passing with the Herz family.
Herz was born in Kežmarok, in what is now Slovakia, in 1934. Coming from a Jewish family, he was imprisoned in the Ravensbrück concentration camp as a young boy during World War II, an experience that would later color his work as a filmmaker.
Herz initially trained as an actor in Bratislava, but turned to work behind the camera when he moved to Prague in the 1960s, where he would become an important figure in the burgeoning Czech New Wave.
A unique combination of horror and black comedy, his film The Cremator starred Czech actor Rudolf Hrušínský in the lead role as a demented crematorium operator who collaborates with the Nazis during WWII.
The film was immediately banned by communist censors following its release, and went unseen in Czechoslovakia until the end of Soviet rule in 1989. The Cremator has gained a cult following internationally, and was recently released on blu-ray by UK distributor Second Run late last year.
Herz was best known for his work in the horror genre, a realm largely unexplored by other Czechoslovak filmmakers. His other acclaimed features included 1972’s murder drama Morgiana and a dark version of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast (Panna a Netvor) in 1978.
Herz’s 1971 drama Petrolejové lampy (Petroleum Lamps) competed for the Palme D’Or at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival.
His 1981 movie Upír z Feratu (Ferat Vampire), a bloody horror movie about a murderous Škoda that starred Jiří Menzel and future first lady Dagmar Havlová, predated Stephen King’s similarly-themed Christine by two years.
Herz’s most recent films were the 2009 paranormal thriller T.M.A. (Darkness) and 2010’s Habermannův mlýn (Habermann’s Mill), a war drama starring Karel Roden about the post WWII-expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia that was released to general acclaim.
In 2009, Juraj Herz received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Czech Lion Awards, the local version of the Oscars; the following year, he was granted a Crystal Globe for Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Lead photo: Herz at the 2010 KVIFF via Wikimedia / che