Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review of The Cremator

It’s rare for my diverse tastes for things like surrealism, art horror, dark comedy and Eastern European cinema all intersect at the same point, so it isn’t particularly surprising that such occasions are shoo-ins for Film Walrus favorites (see “Possession,” for instance). Juraj Herz’s Slovakian film “The Cremator” (1968) might just be a top ten. It tells the fascinating, disturbing and uncomfortably hilarious story of a radical Buddhist psychotic serial killer who runs a Czechoslovakian crematorium in the years leading up to WWII.

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.
When we first meet Karl he is babbling to his wife at their anniversary outside a leopard’s cage. The camera assembles a collage of close-ups, breathlessly leaping from foreheads, lips and hands to the animals, iron bars and nearby foliage. We’re lost from the first instant. We’re adrift in a chaos which may correspond to the vagaries of Karl’s addled mind or the fragmentary reality of the transitioning Europe that produced it.

Our only guide is the incessant, wheedling voice of Mr. Kopfrkingl, which will accompany us from this point onward and account for 90% of the dialogue. And if his whimsical refrain of how it takes 75 minutes to reduce a human to ashes at his affectionately-named “temple of death,” his eerily-interpreted ideas selectively pilfered from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and his hyper-impressionability to Nazi rhetoric are any indication, this is not a guide that’s going to lead us across the moral high ground.

Karl’s idiosyncrasies could fill a psychiatry manual. Quirks like his passion for funereal music and his obsessive career ambitions might be harmless enough, but his overbearing personality and casual hypocrisy (including monthly visits to the brothel) clearly take a toll on his family and coworkers. More dangerously telling is his inclination to blur distinctions between the living and dead, which manifests in a compulsion to apply his pocket comb to himself, others and even his corpses, often in quick succession. As we come to realize that Karl is either hallucinating or haunted by the specter of death, portrayed as a woman with long dark hair, our fears about his pathological descent are confirmed.

[Image: Karl’s private muse or the looming angel of death?]

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.

[Images: Excerpts from the montage sequence where Karl murders his son, a sequence that rivals and even surpasses the Odessa Steps sequence in terms of controlled schizophrenic technique and sophisticated, visceral impact. Also notable is the layers of foreshadowing that lead up to this point, which include a Grand Guignol carnival attraction.]

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.

The editing is reminiscent of “Diamonds of the Night” (1964), especially in the way it reflects the character’s subjectivity. It also occasionally borrows Nemec’s trick of playing out possibilities, most of which won’t happen in reality. One example sees Karl contemplates where to hang a picture, prompting the camera to play the reel of choices running through his mind.

[Image: The portrait is of the President of Nicaragua, but Karl claims its Louis Marin “former minister of pensions” whenever questioned by his Nazi friends.]

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.

[Image: Karl having a vision of himself as the next Dalai Lama.]

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.

[Image: An example of the type of infinitely morbid humor in “The Cremator.” Karl hangs his wife by asking her to examine a broken ventilator in the bathroom. His cat, upon which he dotes, considers her dangling shoelace to be a wonderful cat toy.]

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.

[Image: That’s the “Hell” panel of Heironymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in the background of the film’s most historically monstrous revelation.]

“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

[Image: A gallery of urns.]

“The Cremator” is available from Second Run (who give it their usual luxury treatment) on PAL region 0 DVD.


Anonymous said...

Wow, a 10! Well that's something.

It sounds AMAZING. Maybe when we converge in KS we can all watch?

"Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky) is the type of person most people naturally avoid."

Wow, I can relate to that!

I like some of your phraseology: "strangely cohesive personality", "casual hypocrisy".

BTW, do you think there's any sort of link between Korean & Japanese horror films with creepy women with long black hair, and the creepy woman in this film? When did that one Japanese film come out (the one that started that trend)?

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

That "one Japanese film" would be KWAIDAN, 1964 (Dir: Masaki Kobayashi). So it does predate The Cremator.

Soiled Sinema said...

This looks amazing!
Thanks for the recommendation.

Unknown said...

The good commentary. Many people could not understand this film. But this review is accurate.