In 1968, Alexander Dubcek became party secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, and announced "We shall have to remove everything that strangles artistic and scientific creativeness." The Prague Spring ushered in a period of artistic freedom, which coincided with an exceptionally fertile period of film making in Czechoslovakia. The Cremator is one such film, and one of the best of that era, easily the equal of The Ear or The Party and the Guests. Like these films, it has a political dimension, although it's critique of the abuse of political power is aimed at the Nazis rather than Communists, unless Herz also allows for an allegorical interpretation that regards any totalitarian regime as bad as another.
Kopfrkingel (Rudolf Hrusinsky - imagine a creepier Peter Lorre if you can) runs a successful crematorium. It's obvious something is amiss by how he regards his work; using Buddhist philosophy to wax lyrical about reincarnation, he considers death as an end to suffering and unhappiness and the afterlife one's transformation into something better. A man proud of his work, he boasts that he can burn a body to ashes in just 75 minutes. He gradually becomes swept along by the rise of Nazism, which is gaining a foothold in Czechoslovakia, which is about to be invaded prior to the outbreak of war. He considers Germany a huminitarian state with excellent laws on cremation. He obviously thinks he could perform his job more efficiently under the Germans; a horrifying thought. His seduction by Nazism takes on a shocking dimension, for his wife is half-Jewish, thus his children are one quarter Jewish, and believing Jews to be unhappy and in need of having their souls saved, he embarks on a gruesome means of doing so.
Herz's background was in puppetry, and he was a contemporary and friend of the great Jan Svankmajer (they were born just days apart). The influence of this form of art on the film is immeasurable. Take the carnival scene, which amuses because Kopfrkingel takes his family along, doesn't enjoy it, until he finds a waxwork exhibit which is incredibly gruesome. His family are disgusted, whilst he relishes it. The surreal opening credit sequence too bears all the hallmarks of his origins - the title caption is in between where Kopfrkingel's head is split in two. Black humour is very much at the heart of the film, not that this detracts in any way from the horror you witness. Herz also throws in a number of inventive tricks - distorting Kopfrkingel's voice, adding echo, using an eerie and disorientating soundtrack and unique camera angles - all to symbolise the madness which the cremator has succumbed to.
Released by Second Run, who can never be praised enough for the sterling work they do distributing cinema from neglected regions of the world (they have released numerous Eastern European new wave masterpieces), The Cremator is a chilling and shocking account of one man tipping over the edge into insanity, when seduced by a totalitarian regime which would use his talents for their nefarious ends. Herz, clearly a gifted film maker, gives The Cremator the right visual stlye to create the mood he's going for. An essential film from an astoundingly creative era. 4.5/5