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!

The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutntag) – Věra Chytilová, 1992

It’s the very early days of my journey through Czech cinema, and I still find myself reaching for a “western” film as a comparison when thinking about a Czech film I’ve just watched. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something directly analogous, but something that – however tangentially – captures its atmosphere or themes.

With The Inheritance, or Fuckoffguysgoodday, I found myself cast back to 1995, when Sandra Bullock logged onto The Net. It was a pretty routine conspiracy thriller that bumbled along amiably enough on Bullock’s burgeoning star power, warning everyone about the potential pitfalls of the internet – before anyone really knew what the internet was.

Věra Chytilová’s most famous film internationally, Daisies (Sedmikrásky), was banned by the Czechoslovak government. Two and a half decades later, she stuck the boot into the tawdry temptations of capitalism with her aggressively charmless comedy, The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday – before anyone in her country really knew what capitalism was, or had figured out what it meant for them.

Bolek Polívka (who also co-wrote with Chytilová) stars as Bohus, a slovenly layabout and village piss artist whose favourite things in life are his elderly aunt, slouching around in his undies, chugging slivovice, and having crafty knee-trembler with the barmaid, Vlasta (Dagmar Havlová), at his favourite boozer.

He’s skint and constantly drunk, but seems fairly content with his lot. As with many of the Czech rural comedies that I’ve come to regard as “bumpkincore”, the characters might not have a lot going for them but are sent into a fit of rapture by their beloved nature. Quite rightly so – only this weekend on a train journey back from Nedvědice to Tišnov, with its idyllic hills, forests and streams, I dreamily thought once again that the Czech Republic might be heaven on earth.

Things change, however, when Dr Ulrich (Miroslav Donutil), a smart lawyer from the city, rolls up to tell Bohus that his father has passed away and bequeathed him his considerable fortune…

Continue reading “The Inheritance or Fuckoffguysgoodday (Dědictví aneb Kurvahošigutntag) – Věra Chytilová, 1992”

Divided We Fall (Musíme si pomáhat) – Jan Hřebejk, 2000

Would you have the courage to hide someone from the Nazis during World War II? It’s a question that I’ve often asked myself, because the Holocaust still feels very present here in central Europe. Just down the road from my apartment, in the park on Náměstí 28. října, there is a memorial fountain dedicated to the Jewish and Romani victims from the city. In the summer, Roma children will play in the fountain, bringing that dedication into sharp focus across the decades. I’ve also been to Auschwitz, and I’ve spent some time in Bosnia, talking to people who survived another genocide.

So I’ve asked myself the question, and ten years ago my answer would’ve definitely been yes, I’d hide them. Now though, the answer is more troubling – now I have a family of my own, I’m not sure I would be brave enough to risk my children’s lives to harbour someone else.

This moral question is the central premise of Divided We Fall, Jan Hřebejk’s Oscar-nominated black comedy. Bolek Polívka and Anna Šišková play Josef and Marie, a childless couple who are forced into that life or death dilemma when David (Csongor Kassai), Josef’s former friend and boss, escapes a concentration camp in Poland and makes his way back home…

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Sunday League: Pepik Hnatek’s Final Match (Okresní přebor: Poslední zápas Pepika Hnátka) – Jan Prušinovský, 2012

“Football is not a matter of life and death,” the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously said, “It’s much more important than that.” It’s a nice quote, and anyone who’s passionate about football knows that when you’re in the moment, watching the game, it feels like an absolute truth.

It’s certainly true for Pepik Hnátek (Miroslav Krobot), the fearsome and moribund coach of Slavoj Houslice, a Sunday league team showing few signs of life. Okresní přebor – Poslední zápas Pepika Hnátka is the feature-length prequel to the popular TV series, focusing on the dour and humourless Mr Hnátek, played with utter conviction by Krobot. If you want to get some idea of Hnátek’s coaching methods, imagine Breaking Bad‘s Walter White if he’d gone into football management rather than becoming a drug kingpin…

Continue reading “Sunday League: Pepik Hnatek’s Final Match (Okresní přebor: Poslední zápas Pepika Hnátka) – Jan Prušinovský, 2012”

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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From Subway With Love (Román pro ženy) – Filip Renč, 2005

From Subway with Love is the English title for Román pro ženy (A Novel for Women), although a more appropriate title may have been Men’s Midlife Crisis: The Movie…

I approached the film with pretty low expectations, because a) I’ve already come into contact with two movies adapted from his own novels by the virulent Michal Viewegh, and b) this DVD cover art –

Let’s take a moment to see what we have here. There’s a beautiful young woman, staring seductively at the camera. She’s in a submissive pose, kneeling as she kisses the hand of a man, who is mostly out of the frame. The positioning of the man’s forearm suggests that the rest of his body is open to the camera. I’m intrigued by what is happening outside the borders of this photo. What could the man be doing while this young woman is humbling herself before his masculinity? Drinking a beer? Unzipping his fly? Playing paddle ball? Check out later in the review to find out…

Continue reading “From Subway With Love (Román pro ženy) – Filip Renč, 2005”