The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol) – Juraj Herz, 1969

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Everyone loves a great movie monster, and it’s a tragedy that Rudolf Hrušínský’s incredible performance as Karel Kopfrkingl in The Cremator hasn’t gained the same kind of international notoriety. He’s just as enjoyably chilling, and, with the film coming from a far darker place than the others, has more important things to say to today’s society.

On the surface, Kopfrkingl is the model professional and devoted family man, married to Lakmé (Vlasta Chramostová) who he met in front of the leopard’s cage at the zoo. They have two children, Zina and Mili, both in their teens. He runs a crematorium and devotes his life to discreetly releasing human souls from their deceased bodies by incinerating them in his furnaces. He’s obsessed with the process of cremation and fuses his interpretations of Buddhism (learned from his lovely book on Tibet) with his own views on death and reincarnation. Outwardly he tries to project himself as a man of good taste and scruples, although dark lusts lurk beneath his prissy manner and sanctimonious smile.

The film is set during the 1930s, and one of Kopfrkingl’s old army chums, Mr Reinke (Ilja Prachař), is an engineer with ties to the Nazi party who encourages him to recognize the theoretical drop of German blood flowing in his veins. Initially, Kopfrkingl rejects the idea, maintaining that they’re a good Czech family and only speak Czech at home. But as the threat of German invasion looms over the country, we see that Kopfrkingl is an endlessly malleable hypocrite who is easily swayed into informing on his Jewish friends and colleagues. He readily adjusts his beliefs to suit the prevailing wind, especially when there’s some perceived benefit for him involved. As it turns out, the Nazis have a special project in mind for someone in his particular niche, and he’s ready to embrace his calling … and then some.

Adapted from Ladislav Fuks’ novel, The Cremator is a rare example of a Czech horror film. Herz creates an intensely disturbing atmosphere through the use of stark black and white photography, tight close-ups on people’s eyes and mouths to create a sense of dreadful intimacy, and bold edits to further discombobulate the viewer. Zdeněk Liška’s ethereal score adds another layer of eeriness.

The subject matter may be grim, but there are two things that make The Cremator one of the most easily re-watchable Czech films I’ve seen to date: Herz’s intuitive direction, and Rudolf Hrušínský as Kopfrkingl.

Some of the film making here is absolutely breathtaking. There are hidden transitions between scenes that made me want to stand up and perform a one-man Mexican Wave … while I was watching it alone in my front room. In one scene, Kopfrkingl is sermonizing at a carnival barker about disease and modern science. While he’s talking he unbuttons his shirt cuff, rolls up his sleeve, and starts flexing his arm. It makes absolutely no sense in the context of the scene he’s in. But then we cut to a close-up of a needle penetrating a vein, and suddenly we’re in the doctor’s office with Kopfrkingl getting a blood test.

Only in hindsight do we realize that he’s warming up for the jab in the previous scene, totally separated by time and space – it has a really astonishing effect. Herz uses several of these transitions through the film, creating a further sense of dislocation.

Then you have Hrušínský. It’s early doors in my journey through Czech cinema and he was quickly becoming my favourite Czech actor. His massive performance as Kopfrkingl sealed the deal. He’s incredible here in a fully realized, minutely observed performance, all the way down to Kopfrkingl’s petty eyes and little self-satisfied twitches of the lips; his courtly manner and how he uses his substantial bulk to intimidate people around him; the hand laid calmly yet threateningly on their necks; the way he tenderly combs the hair of the deceased, then subconsciously uses the same comb on his own hair. 

When Kopfrkingl finally tips over into violence the most disturbing aspect about it is the complete lack of aggression. “The banality of evil” is a phrase so overused that it has become banal itself, but Kopfrkingl is a perfect example. Once he’s decided on a victim, it’s totally passionless. I was reminded of Passolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom where, under the influence of a fascist regime, people become accustomed to performing the most heinous and depraved actions as a matter of course.

It also made me think about Divided We Fall, which showed how difficult it was for decent people to make a stand against the Nazis and do the right thing. The Cremator is the opposite, showing how easy it is for someone to fall under the influence of a pernicious ideology and enthusiastically do its bidding.

Blackly comic, masterfully crafted and extremely disturbing, The Cremator is a Czech horror masterpiece that deserves to be seen by a far wider audience, especially in our current troubled times.

***

You can get a copy of The Cremator Blu-Ray over at Amazon.co.uk – click here!

Larks on a String (Skřivánci na niti) – Jiří Menzel, 1969/1990

Banned for over twenty years and only released after the Velvet Revolution, Jiří Menzel’s Larks on a String is a film out of time. It was one of the director’s more overtly critical works in the ’60s, openly sarcastic about the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. As a result, it endured censure and became a valuable relic of the grim post-Prague Spring era, lacking the timelessness of Menzel’s more gently comedic films of the period…

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Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divů) – Jaromil Jireš, 1970

Rapturously beautiful, disturbingly erotic, and strangely frightening, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is an intoxicating blend from director Jaromil Jireš, a key figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave. It’s a surrealist horror where reality and identity are fluid, yet the film has its own dreamlike logic where it all makes a kind of sense while you’re watching it. Then, like so many dreams, the more you try to remember on waking, the more it slips from your grasp…

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Capricious Summer (Rozmarné léto) – Jiří Menzel, 1967

Unlike where I come from in England, we tend to get long hot summers here in the Czech Republic. The good weather sets in towards the end of April and usually runs through until late September. It’s my ninth summer here now and each year, sometime around late August, when the nights are drawing in and there’s a breath of autumn on the breeze, I’m always struck by a bittersweet feeling. It’s a sense of longing and loss and melancholy, a sensation that has intensified as the years ticked down towards my 40th birthday. Somewhere inside I sigh and think, “Well, that’s another year over.” Followed by a nasty little whisper at the back of my mind, “How many good summers have you got left?”

That bittersweet feeling is captured so beautifully by Jiří Menzel’s Rozmarné Léto. I first saw it very early after we arrived to live in the Czech Republic, and initially I was quite dismissive of it. I hadn’t adjusted to the rhythm and pace of Czech films and to me it felt like a pilot for a sitcom, mainly because of its surface similarity to the long running British comedy series, Last of the Summer Wine, which followed the shenanigans of three retired blokes in a small town in northern England.

Rozmarné Léto is a perennial favourite in the Czech Republic. It is Menzel’s follow up to his Oscar nominated Ostře Sledované Vlaky (Closely Watched Trains), adapted from the novel by Vladislav Vančura. It’s a gentle yet neatly observed bedroom face about three old friends whose comfortable boredom is disrupted when a travelling acrobat rolls into town, and each one’s trousers are set a-rustling by his beautiful young assistant.

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Daisies (Sedmikrásky) – Věra Chytilová, 1966

Surrealist and Avant Garde films aren’t always the most popular choice for the average movie goer. Until Leos Carax’s demented Holy Motors generated some outside-bet Oscar buzz a few years ago, I’d rather watch a compilation tape of hairy builders receiving a back, sack and crack before dabbling with the avant garde.

My perspective has changed slightly since then, largely on the basis of Denis Lavant’s incredible (literally) balls-out multiple performances in that movie, and two of my favourite films of the past few years are of the avant garde variety – Dziga Vertov’s hypnotic portrait of a city in Man with a Movie Camera, and Věra Chytilová’s playful yet provocative Daisies.

A cornerstone of the Czech New Wave, Daisies tells of two young women, known as Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová), who declare that they are broken and in that case, they might as well be bad.

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Marketa Lazarová – František Vláčil, 1967

There’s an underseen film called The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey, where some English miners from the Middle Ages tunnel through the earth and emerge in modern day New Zealand. Watching Marketa Lazarová feels a bit like that in reverse – you leave your comfortable 21st century life behind for a few hours and pop up in medieval Bohemia.

Director František Vláčil spent around two years filming on location, which meant his cast and crew were afforded barely much more luxury than the story’s characters. Few films have such a feeling of history – not in the studious sense of dates and places, but of deep dark waters of time rolling beneath the keel of the present day’s unsteady ship.

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Nowhere in Moravia (Díra u Hanušovic) – Miroslav Krobot, 2014

Miroslav Krobot’s morosely funny Nowhere in Moravia is a downbeat portrayal of small lives, set in a tiny village where life takes forever.

The opening hours of the local hospoda marks the passing of time, and there are two main ways out – by bus and by coffin. Buses aren’t very frequent, so the villagers eat, drink and screw the days away until death finally comes along to relieve them of their boredom.

If you think that sounds pretty grim, then you’re right – it is.

Having said that, I laughed far more during Nowhere in Moravia than I do in most mainstream American comedies these days, and there is much joy to be had from the bric-a-brac of ordinary life tucked in the corners of cinematographer Jan Baset Střítežský’s gorgeous compositions.

Some of the more farcical elements could be straight from the pages of Hrabal, and a thread of small-town ennui traces back at least as far as Rozmarné léto (Capricious Summer), although the bittersweet fatalism of Menzel’s work curdles into outright pessimism in Krobot’s film debut.

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