Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky) is the type of person most people naturally avoid. Although he seems to be a family man with a passion for music and his work, the somewhat morbid operations of a successful crematorium, his unctuous mannerisms and creepy habits mark his as a deranged individual. Rudolf Hrusinsky really makes the character his own, giving one of the greatest performances I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. One never doubts Karl’s strangely cohesive personality, and yet it remains impossible to fathom. Herz thankfully never tries to explain him in psychoanalytic terms, nor to portray him as either overly sympathetic or superhumanly evil.
Eventually Karl gives over wholly to his devotion to death, believing that it is his mission as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama to free flesh-bound souls from pain and suffering. He easily adapts himself to the burgeoning Nazi movement as a way of furthering his cause, thought it’s clear he has little interest in the politics or ideology behind it. With offhand cunning and resourcefulness he begins to put his philosophy into action at home, starting with the cold-blooded elimination of his half-Jewish wife and quarter-Jewish children. The ending leaves no doubt as to the future direction of his mania.
Despite a cast of darkly humorous supporting characters, this is really a one-man show with Herz endeavoring to filter a fairly vast scope of historical and social issues through the warped lens that is Karl. In that spirit, the camerawork is inflected with an insanity befitting Mr. Kopfrkingl erratic derangement. Its warped wide-angle shots and imperfection-magnifying close-ups convey the urgency of Karl’s crusade for purity and death.
Long takes like those that appear “Diamonds of the Night,” however, are almost entirely absent. Herz favors the short chop; shuffling through a succession of images that are exquisitely lit and composed. It’s always clear what we’re looking at, but we are kept off balance by the unpredictable movements across space and time. Dialog cross-cutting, for instance, is almost wholly discarded (since the monologue replaces conversation, it isn’t particularly useful) to be replaced by shots that intersperse Karl’s POV with images that feel like random pages torn from his self-congratulatory diary.
Perhaps most disorientating is the hiccups forward in time. A frequent technique in “The Cremator” is a cut that looks like a reaction shot belonging to the current scene, but which is revealed (by a zoom out, pan or subsequent cut) to be part of a later scene. There is never any fade or transition to signify the jump, and it is often conspicuously less jarring than cuts within the scene. The gap in-between sequences might be hours or months, but we rarely know until context informs us. To keep track of time without the usual cues viewers must either strain for revealing details or accept a certain detachment from all outside events not directly relevant to Karl.
The somber atmosphere we might expect for “The Cremator” is made, intentionally inappropriately, bouncy and jovial as a result of both the brisk editing and Karl’s deliriously optimistic outlook. Despite the ominous and macabre moments, the absurdity of Mr. Kopfrkingl’s life is often quite hysterical. One laughs, but feels immediately guilty. The gallows humor is set against the formal rigor of the cinematography and Zdenek Liska’s score (there he is again!) that reassures us that Herz is not merely being flippant.
“The Cremator” is the type of film you might like if you have an appetite for eccentric villain with art horror sauce and a side of New Wave experimentation. It comes with a mug of humor served pitch black. This is the preferred diet of domestic film walruses. For a lighter meal of cremation comedy cuisine, try “The Loved One” (1965).
Walrus Rating: 10