The Cremator - Directed by Juraj Herz, starring Rudolf Hrušinský, Vlasta Chramostová, Jana Stehnová, and Miloš Vognič, 1969.
The first thing you notice in Juraj Herz’ Czech New Wave film, set in Czechoslovakia in the 30s during the rise of the Third Reich, is how comical the face of Kopfrkingl, the titular cremator, is; soft, rotund, a little off, just weird enough that you would describe it as a funny face. Through the first part of the film, he seems harmless enough, he has some strange views his job as a cremator, but he claims he wants to improve the business to better the lives of his wife and children. It is almost sheer absurdity that an hour and a half later, by the film’s end, this odd and ineffectual man will have murdered his wife and son, informed on all his friends, and happily volunteered his services in helping to perfect the gas chambers the Nazis will use in their attempts to eradicate the Jews. That Kopfrkingl is somewhat insane is never in doubt, the frequent hallucinations are a testament to that, but his slide into that madness, and the accompanying Nazism, is slowly teased out through degrees. If to the viewer, his change seems absolute, it is one that happens gradually, which each new seduction that is dangled in front of him.
While the film sounds rather grim, due to the bizarreness of its protagonist, the tone is more of a black comedy than a straight up thriller or horror film. The style is obviously inspired by Weimar Expressionism, from the use of black and white, to the extreme close ups of body parts, animals, and works of arts, as well as jarring scene shifts in which Kopfrkingl is in the exact same place, causing the viewer some cognitive dissonance. In one of the movie’s more hysterical scenes, the cremator impassionedly explains to the Germans his theory of how incineration relieves people of their suffering while the camera moves through close ups of different parts of the hellscape panel of a reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights on the wall behind him. Banned by the communist government shortly after its premiere, Herz’ almost Kafka-esque film is a dark mediation on how seemingly rational men can easily become monsters, because the truth is that all they have to do is convince themselves that they are doing it for the good of others.