Think extreme close-ups of various zoo animals and human beings in bleak, black and white. Think a creepy, ominous score playing in the background, and a clear, deep baritone voice narrating in a manner that sounds like a hypnotist’s humdrum drone, trying to put the audience in a trance!
It is an enticing beginning to this spellbinding film from the Czech New Wave, "The Cremator" (1969). The aforementioned voice belongs to the eponymous character, a man named Karl Kopfrkingl, who looks like an overgrown cherub, with his ever smiling, chubby face. This highly well-mannered, polite gentleman, is happily residing in 1930s Czechoslovakia with his family, a son Mili (Milos Vognic), daughter Zina (Jana Stehnová) and a beautiful wife (Vlasta Chramostová) who he lovingly calls Lakme or Angel! He loves his family very much. He is also passionate about music. He mostly loves classical, operatic music that gives him the most immense pleasure and he loses himself in it. He works at a local crematorium and loves his job; perhaps loves it a little too much for his own good!
What else can one say about a man so obsessed with death, funerals and cremation, that when he invites guests to a party, he interrupts the music for a bit to talk about his ideologies about death, reincarnation, and his belief that cremation is better than burial, for it takes only 75 minutes to cremate a body to ashes, thus ensuring a quick liberation of the soul of the deceased and an expedited reincarnation! He is a big follower of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan book of the dead. At his party, he quotes from this book, justifying the advantages of cremation! What’s more, he goes on to urge his guests, much to their shock and awe, to make sure that they arrange for themselves to be cremated rather than buried, when they pass away! An apparently steadfast teetotaler and nonsmoker, he promptly goes on to pull out cigars from his guests’ mouths, with a smiling face, even giving them some valuable advice like, "when you die, there is no smoking or drinking for all eternity"! This is the kind of man who experiences a different kind of high at the mere mention of a funeral hall! And then it is no surprise, he doesn’t call his crematorium, a crematorium; rather he likes to call it the "temple of death"! When a new employee joins under him in the crematorium, he tells him with a smile, "you will get your chance to see it happen through this little window, during some nice cremation"! We are shown how, in a carnival, while Kopfrkingl’s family is interested in acrobatics and other merry sights, Kopfrkingl himself is more enthusiastic about a waxworks horror show revolving around murder and suicide!
A lot of other quirky traits of this strange man slowly come into view. It’s a hilarious portrayal of a morbid persona, perhaps a bit over the top too. But it makes for very interesting viewing, how this man keeps reveling in anything related to demise! So far we aren’t really sure where the film is headed, for most of the first half deals with character introductions and their idiosyncrasies.
Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, "The Cremator" is set against the backdrop of the time when the Nazi forces were spreading their wings over Czechoslovakia. The crux of the narrative lies in how this darkly comic character portrait is connected to the situation of war. It is filmmaking at its best, as director Juraj Herz uses cinematic devices that give shape to the central character’s demented state of mind and his twisted beliefs. Experience the madness with visuals that are a product of trippy, hallucinogenic camerawork full of fisheye lens shots and close-up shots that tend to make you giddy; a sound design that makes you feel like there are voices in your head, playing tricks on you; a befitting, opera-like, haunting score, the quality of which enhances when clubbed with some disturbing events they accompany. It is a breathtaking marriage of sound and visuals that is designed to mess with your mind long after the film is over! Perhaps it is the director’s own experiment in hypnosis that he performs through the medium of cinema!
A theme of doubles and doppelgangers seems to be prominent in the film. In one scene we see a pair of identical twins having a meal at a table. At another point of time, Kopfrkingl desires to tell his friend about a girl who was born with two heads and four pairs of limbs! In a hallucination, a ghostly double of Kopfrkingl himself appears as a Buddhist monk. And then there’s the prostitute Dagmar, who bears a striking resemblance to Kopfrkingl’s wife Lakme (both roles are played by the same actress, Vlasta Chramostová)!
As the film progresses, it gets increasingly phantasmagorical with its recurring motifs and characters that constantly cross Kopfrkingl's path. There’s the beautiful young girl and her boyfriend who keep popping up; even meet to make out at a cemetery! Then there’s a couple; a hysterical, paranoid woman with a hat and her irritated husband, who happen to bump into Kopfrkingl almost everywhere he goes! An enigmatic pale woman (Helena Anýzová) keeps appearing as well; but it is not clear whether she is a real person or Kopfrkingl's hallucination, or an apparition! He seems to know her though, for in one scene he stops short of saying who she reminded him of! It is not explicit whether anyone else acknowledges her presence either.
It is towards the third act that the film takes an unexpected turn of shocking proportions and builds to a hair-raising climax. It boggles the mind how, merely an idea suggested can terrify, as opposed to some modern so-called horror flicks that claim to be "scary", based merely, on cheap thrills. Juraj Herz’s "The Cremator" is a masterpiece; a refreshingly original film, with a bravura, unforgettable lead performance by Rudolf Hrušínský. It is utterly sad that films like these get lost in the depths of obscurity.