Surrealist inspired horror; expressionist fantasy; a dark and disturbing tale of terror…
As Nazi Germany wages war across Europe and fascism begins infecting 1930’s Prague, a professional cremator finds the political climate emboldening to his increasingly deranged ideas for the ‘salvation of the world’.
Maybe I was an unusually sensitive child, but Monty Python scared me. Not all the time, and it’s not as if they didn’t thrill me, fascinate me, and make me laugh as well, but as a child, something about the series – and the member’s other works like Ripping Yarns (1976-1979), Jabberwocky (1977), and Time Bandits (1981) – unsettled me; made me uncomfortable; and yes, made me scared.
I’m 40 years old now, and of course that effect has changed, but still, there’s something in what got under my skin back then that I still find disturbing today to this day. Something more insidious and more upsetting that what we’d normally think of as ‘Horror’. Something I still find in some of Terry Gilliam’s work when he still decides to go there. It’s tied to what Hannah Arendt called ‘the banality of evil’ in her description of Adolf Eichmann and his part in the implementation of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’, as well as to the work of Franz Kafka, Roland Topor, Roman Polanski and to some degree Stanley Kubrick as well. It is about a particular kind of absurdist horror – maybe even, absurdist evil – that I find utterly chilling because at heart it seems to me so frighteningly true.
This then is The Cremator (Spaclov mrtvol), directed in 1969 by Juraj Herz; a masterpiece of ‘Absurdist Horror’. But where most such films and literature present us with an ostensibly ‘innocent’ protagonist, consumed, terrorised, or otherwise in conflict with an an unknowable system seemingly predicated on their persecution, here it is the audience who are – in a sense – placed in conflict with the film; its protagonist presenting an absurd logic against which we must surely revolt, but find ourselves consistently drawn in by… horrified by what is unfolding before us, but unable (unwilling?) to stop it, even as we know where it is heading. In a cinema setting, we are – of course – physically unable to stop it from happening (we cannot stop the film from unspooling on the screen), though we are free to leave. But even when stopping the film is as simple as clicking the remote with our thumbs, still, the film making is so enthralling, the technique so seductive and persuasive, that we still find ourselves unable (unwilling?) to act; to stop the madness into which we are being drawn.
In his essay The Myth Of Sisyphus, Albert Camus describes a world and an existence that is Absurd and suggests that faced with this Absurd Existence, we have but two choices: Suicide, or Revolt. Why then, do we not revolt? Why do we not walk out or stop the film? I’d suggest it is because Herz, presenting us with an Absurd world in his film, nonetheless presents it with such persuasive and overwhelming technique that like the coming of war, or the insidious onset of fascism itself, we only notice that it has gone too far, that we are in too deep; when it is too late to do anything about it. In The Cremator, Herz presents us with the madness of an Absurd idea made real. And yet, despite what we can see before us, we refuse to believe that it is really happening. It happens anyway… and we sit back and watch. So the act of watching the film becomes a precise and terrifying example of how seemingly Absurd, certainly abhorrent, ideas and actions can overtake us. Can be allowed to happen, because ‘normal’ people fail to act.
Herz’ technique is astonishing. He makes us complicit by our passivity as viewers. The film is a work of Art. Do I think Juraj Herz ever thought that anyone would actually walk out of the film? Not really, no. But still, the way that he executes his film (pun very much intended) and the position in which the experience places the viewer, has – in and of itself – an immense significance in this case. Herz’s background was not, like some of his contemporaries, in the Film And TV Faculty of Prague’s Academy Of Performing Arts, but rather, like Jan Svankmajer, in the Theatre Faculty where, from 1954-1958, he studied puppetry. During the period when he was studying, not only was Albert Camus’ popularity and influence at its peak, so was the Absurdist theatre of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, and Jerzy Grotowski, in which the very relationship between the actors and audience (the relationship of fact and fiction?), and the line between them were being tested, twisted and blurred in the name of provocation. In a sense, the theatrical experience itself was in a state of ‘revolution’. All of which would surely have filtered into Herz’ study and understanding of Art, Drama, and Theatre; the platform from which he then launched his career in Film.
I first saw The Cremator back in 2006, when Second Run released it as part of their first wave of dvds. I was running a video rental store at the time (and yes it was an ill-advised decision to open it as the rental market was going down the drain… but c’est la vie… we follow our dreams), and was adding Second Run titles to the catalogue with glee. One of the greatest pleasures of Second Run’s releases was, and remains, the sense of discovery. I knew nothing about the film except what the cover told me. But from the word go, the label was so well curated that it was a joy every time they released something. It’s only fitting then that, having built on their success in the DVD/SD market, and in a sense now created an audience for these films, that they should return to one of their most important titles as they move into Blu-ray/HD. The film, as you’d expect looks beautiful – crisp, clear, bringing out ever more the austere clinical sheen of the images, their seeming simplicity, and their chilling beauty. Kopfrkingl’s oiled hair has never looked more carefully, precisely styled as he retouches it with the comb he also uses to make the dead look their best before he burns them… sorry, before he ‘liberates the soul from their bodies’.
It had been a while since I last watched the film. What struck me so forcibly this time, was Herz’ extraordinary use of technique. I took twelve pages of notes watching this film, and most of it was in the opening sequence. For all that it is, in essence, a ‘quiet’ scene of a man and his family visiting the zoo, still the shots, the editing, the dialogue and voice-over combined to take my breath away. It was overwhelming. Like a wave, it knocked me back and pulled me under. Not that the film is a barrage of the latter day Tony Scott rapid editing, but still the rhythm of the edits is persistent; deceptive; propulsive and compulsive. Every element is working to strike sparks off the others, whether in the traditional sense of montage as one shot collides with another to create a specific idea or feeling, or in the way Herz uses voiceover and dialogue to create a further layer of Audio/Visual montage, where the two do not quite match, but spark a yet another feeling, yet another thought or idea; or, in the way Herz uses vertical montage, juxtaposing elements within the frame itself in terms of set design, action and composition. [All of this he uses simultaneously.] This is not the traditional ‘invisible editing‘ of Hollywood narrative cinema, but neither is it quite what we might think of as avant-garde, though it is certainly influenced by that. Still, the total effect of Herz’s sound and image is so immersive and so compulsive, as to be almost ‘invisible’, and without a pause button, or the ability to examine the film frame by frame, you can’t keep up, you can only give in and let the current – and the film – take you where it will.
The film opens on the image of a cage and a leopard roaming within it, pacing back and forth; a visual metaphor for Kopfrkingl’s skewed vision of mankind, wherein the majestic wild soul is imprisoned within the cage of our bodies, and he is the liberator who will set it free. The bars fill the screen, we cannot see their limits, and so to all intent and purpose, they are limitless, all-encompassing of the life that paces back and forth within, impatient and roaring to be free. As the images cut from human eyes to animal eyes, to hair and teeth and frowns and smiles, so the voiceover explains this with a kind of yearning romanticism. For all that Kopfrkingl’s glances are often furtive, his brow frequently furrowed in isolated close-up, he smiles beatifically in wide shots that frame him with his wife, Marie, whom he calls Lakme. The cuts and images come thick and fast, his eyes, his mouth, his brow, all in close up; his eyes furtive as he looks from the leopard to his wife, his mouth and then the tiger’s – open wide – its teeth and tongue and throat on full display, it wants to bite, surely, to devour… as he describes how it wants to be free. Already there’s a sense of danger in Kopfrkingl’s idea of freedom, a dangerous association between him and the animal. He’s telling his wife about how the old leopard, that was there when they first visited has died, been ‘relieved of its shackles’, and now another takes its place. He’s talking of ‘liberation’ and ‘freedom’, and perhaps reincarnation.
The way he then smoothly segues from this to “I always have the feeling that I do so little for you…” is deftly done and ultimately chilling. In just a few words, and without missing a beat, we are suddenly wondering what exactly he wants to do for her then… in just 44 seconds of screen time, we are worried about this man’s relationship to this woman; we are unnerved, even as his soft features and smiling face will try to charm and calm us.
“We’re not doing badly,” she says.
“Not badly…” he replies, as Herz cuts to a close shot of a snake, symbol of cold-blooded cunning, pushing home our sense of mistrust in this man and his words.
Cut to a rhino as they talk of her mother, and we can’t help but smile, undercutting our fear; cut to a crocodile, as he mentions her aunt. Another cold-blooded reptile, this one with sharp teeth… is it what Kopfrkingl thinks of her, or is this an image of HIM… an ageing mother and an ageing aunt are good for business, surely, when your business is dealing with the dead? Either way, Herz is pulling the rug on us in the blink of an eye. Teeth again… then animals: apes, an elephant, a lion… Kopfrkingl is wiping the sweat from his palms; so many trapped animals, so many trapped souls, all waiting to be free…
“Dear, I must take care of you…” he says, and now it’s over as he mentions their children, 16 and 14, and we cut to them in a cage, animalistic, glaring and baring their teeth at him as Herz unifies what Kopfrkingl is saying and what we are seeing: caged animals; caged children; caged lives; caged souls, all in need of ‘taking care of’, of being set free, of being ‘relieved of their shackles’.
From the animalistic children, we cut to see Kopfrkingl, full face for the first time as he smiles at the creatures in their cage – which the editing and the eyelines clearly mean to be his children. It is a fantasy then, but clearly his. He’s projecting the children into the animals place. The phrase ‘taking care of’ carries an implication of violence, of murder, it’s such a well-worn cliché. Now, by linking the phrase ‘taking care of’ with his family and with the idea of a dying animal being a creature set free, we get the implication of murder as the same…
“Dear, I must take care of you…”
That phrase haunts me. Seems to echo through the film. It makes me shudder… And then, on a dime, Herz takes it further still by bringing in money. Murder and cremation as spiritual liberation, financial transaction, and capitalist cause!
Kopfrkingl wants to increase his income, the better to ‘take care’ of people. How? By hiring an agent on commission (he says this proudly direct to camera, as if directly to us the audience). Is Herz testing us? Provoking us? Is he simply putting us in Lakme’s place? Does she feel as unsettled as we are by the undercurrents of this discussion and pronouncement? Are we in as much danger as we’ve begun to think she is? Herz refuses to let us find our feet. The ground beneath us is uncertain, our perspective likewise. We are not safe, nothing is stable.
The agent here is called Mr. Strauss. Kopfrkingl will later make direct reference to the composer Richard Strauss, and it’s hard not to think of him when the name is mentioned, especially if – like me – you’re a Ken Russell fan. In his Dance Of The Seven Veils (1970) Russell would depict Strauss as a Nazi sympathizer, cosying up to the Hitler regime, drowning out the screams of tortured Jews with his ‘hollow, bombastic’ music. Was Herz suggesting something similar? I can’t help but see something of a parallel: the composer drowning out screams with his music; the agent selling death as ‘liberation’, a quicker route to paradise… aren’t they both sugar coating a poisoned pill?
“I’ll invite him to our party” surely also carries a double meaning, or at least the insinuation of one. At this stage in the film, there has been no clear indication of when or where the film is set, but if we come to the film with even the barest of knowledge of what it is about, Cremation and ‘The Party’ become loaded with historical and political foreboding.
Kopfrkingl admires himself and his family in a distorted mirror apparently placed somewhere in the zoo. The mirror is convex, so the image has a sort of fish-eye distortion to it. As Kopfrkingl admires himself and his family in the distorted reflection, Herz cuts to a closer shot. It’s not clear if this is a close up of the mirror, with the camera placed close enough that the edges of the mirror cannot be seen, or whether the camera is now filming from the perspective of the mirror itself, with a fish-eye lens creating the same distortion as that of the convex mirror, but the effect is of the latter: we are no longer looking at Kopfrkingl’s reflection, we ARE the reflection. We are the mirror.
In a single cut, Herz literally takes the viewer through the looking glass. It is a masterstroke. Deceptively simple, and devastatingly effective. And it is something that Herz does time and again all through the film. His technique is effortless and unselfconscious; not showy, but utterly unforgettable; disorienting and disturbing without being confusing or vague. The images are haunting and laden with threat for all that they are, for the most part, of simple dinner table scenes and conversations. The film is so densely layered and richly textured, filled with hints and allusions that the temptation for any writer is simply to disappear down the rabbit hole in pursuit. It is an essay, not a book, so let me simply note a couple more things as I urge you – if you’ve not already seen it – to drop what you’re doing and pick up a copy of The Cremator immediately/NOW… and when you do, pay particular attention to Herz’ use of the wide angle lens. The distortion of the fish-eye lens (perhaps itself a reference to the trout they will later be killing for their Christmas dinner) is used consistently throughout the film, in particular when filming Kopfrkingl himself, but only after Herz has taken us through the looking glass of the distorted mirror in the opening scene. That is the first introduction of the ‘warped’ image of our characters. Only once Herz has crossed that line, place us within the film/the film within us, set up the audience as the mirror that reflects the characters and vice versa, does he use the fish-eye lens. Given the way he has positioned the camera, and thereby the audience, as the mirror/on the other side of that mirror looking through… who then can we say is ‘warped’? Is it the characters? Or is it us? Is the distortion a comment on Kopfrkingl, or on we the viewer/the society around him? Or is it both?
Notice also, the elusive way that Herz transitions from one scene to another. Time and again, what we think is the end of one scene (often shot in close up), pulls back to reveal that it is, in fact, the beginning of the next. Time and again the scene is primed so that this ‘end point’ draws the viewer toward the edge of their seat, we can see where it’s pointing and as we’ve come to understand by normal film language and the narrative rhythms of suspense we’re ready; we think we’re ahead of it and in control, we’re primed to enjoy the building of narrative suspense… only to have the rug pulled out from under us.
We think we know where the film is going, and in a single cut, realise we’re already there. What we thought we were seeing, was not what we were seeing, and what we believed was wrong. There’s a vertiginous shock to these cuts as we figuratively, lose our footing, and seem to fall head first into the next scene. Like a nightmare, and like the horrific reality of social change and the coming of abhorrent political movements, when we can see it coming, it’s already too late. Oh, he wouldn’t go there…
Shit, he already has.
Oh, we wouldn’t be stupid enough to vote Brexit…
Oh, fucking hell but we have.
The fascists are in the minority, we don’t have to worry about them, they’re a joke…
And suddenly they’re in control.
Herz pulls the rug out from under us every step of the way. It is electrifying, and it is terrifying, and as a film I cannot recommend it enough. The Second Run Blu-ray is the films first appearance on Blu-ray anywhere in the world and is presented Region Free (so, wherever you are, you’ve no excuses!) and features the Quay Brothers intro from the original DVD release as well as an informative and engaging new commentary by our fearless leader Kat Ellinger, who takes the opportunity not only to discuss the film, but present something of a primer on vastly underrated Juraj Herz.
The disc also features Herz’s 1965 short film The Junk Shop (Sberne surovosti) a fantastic episode of The Projection Booth Podcast, wherein regular host Mike White, and guest (and associate editor of Diabolique) Samm Deighan talk at length about the film. It’s relaxed, but enthusiastic, and very entertaining: a lot like having two very cool friends over to have coffee and talk movies. Grab a cup and get comfortable (actually, make a pot, this one is long).
It’s a wonderful package, and even if you bought the DVD I’d recommend the upgrade. The picture is significantly improved and the addition of a commentary and short film, make it more than worth it. In every way, an essential purchase.
BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
- The Cremator (Spalovač mrtvol, 1968) presented from a new HD transfer from original materials by the Czech National Film Archive
- Filmed introduction by the Quay Brothers
- Audio Commentary by Diabolique magazine editor-in-chief Kat Ellinger
- Juraj Herz’s short film The Junk Shop (Sběrné surovosti, 1965)
- The Projection Booth podcast with Mike White and critic Samm Deighan
- Booklet with an essay on Herz and the film by writer/producer Daniel Bird
- New and improved English subtitle translation
- Region Free
- World premiere release on Blu-ray
- Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1
- Video: BD50 / 1080p / 24fps
- Audio: 2.0 Dual Mono LPCM (48k/24-bit)
- Region A/B/C (Region Free)
 Camus believed that to revolt was the only choice, which is to say that in an Absurd world where life seems to have no meaning, the only way to give it meaning is to live as fully and vividly as we can. To truly live then, is to rebel against meaninglessness, against suicide, against the void: against Death.
 ‘A conclusion, perhaps, to be drawn from Herz’s biography is that attention to key filmmakers in the [Czech] New Wave – Nemec, Chytilova, Menzel, Forman and Schorm – hinge upon auteur principles at the expense of the broader cultural context of not only music and literature but also the graphic and tactile arts, as well as puppetry and mime. Therefore, it makes sense to treat Herz as a polymath, a filmmaker who has adopted a bricolage approach to filmmaking, incorporating elements of music, theatre and puppetry into his films.’ Bird, Daniel. “Juraj Herz – An Introduction”, Second Run DVD Liner Notes ‘Morgiana’ (2010): p04-05