The Cremator (Herz, 1968)

Fascism is born in the mind. We live secure in the knowledge that such minds collectively form little more than insignificant minorities in contemporary Western societies – but how much of that knowledge is based upon material fact, and how much is self-delusion? The capacity for bigotry exists somewhere within us all. And although in most cases it lies dormant (or at least translucent enough to be wilfully ignored), such volcanoes of devolution may not need the strongest of catalysts to awaken from their respective slumbers. After all, for most the delineation between normality and brutality will remain forever untested. Could it be, then, that our moral boundaries are more precarious than we’d like to believe?

Juraj Herz’s The Cremator dives head-first into the degenerative psyche of one Karl Kopfrkingl – an eccentric, somewhat awkward bourgeois fantasist who lives for social advancement. This oily, rotund character rigidly maintains his aura of respectability, priding himself on his familial and professional roles (both, for him, are fundamental status symbols). In terms of the former, our protagonist appears nigh-on faultless: the patriarch of an immaculately nuclear household, his only visible “flaw” (in Czechoslovakia c. 1938) is an overly-effeminate son and heir. And with regards to the professional, few are likely to relish their careers as much as this eponymous cremator, who zealously forges fantastical links between his own incineration of the dead and the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama in a sincere attempt to garner validation for his work. Unfortunately for Kopfrkingl, society is slow on the uptake when it comes to the self-perceived benevolence of his undertakings, leaving him with an inferiority complex that he’ll do anything (anything) to conquer.

Bulging at the seams with its director’s visual flair, The Cremator‘s primary intent is to disorientate the viewer into incertitude. Sharp, angular compositions; quasi-abstract montages; a random deployment of fish-eye lenses; extreme close-ups that dissect and distort the human body – all contrive to impair our comprehension of an otherwise straightforward narrative. Herz’s most cunning tactic finds him cannily abusing the audience’s trust in the integrity of the audio-visual relationship through his editing: by frequently resting his camera upon Kopfrkingl’s face (as the character espouses the garrulous monologues that so pervade the film), the director lures us into a misappropriated understanding of on-screen action. On certain, unpredictable instances however, the camera zooms out to reveal a backdrop which deliberately contradicts that of the preceding shot. Thus, the dialogue continuity enacted by the protagonist is deftly exposed as an illusive device that unsettlingly conceals scene-to-scene transitions, quietly disembowelling our awareness of space and time.

Such strategies prove emblematic of the director’s diegetic formation, conceived as a dynamic duplicate of the paranoia-inducing frameworks that one more commonly associates with the horror genre. And indeed, in many respects the gruesome content of the film lends credence to his designs: given its portrayal of Nazism’s inevitable onset and the consequent upending of a tenuous national order, The Cremator effectively invites murder and mayhem into its boudoir. Less expected, though, is the macabre humour that incises its way throughout the proceedings, perplexingly undercutting the emotional intensity of the drama at hand. Kopfrkingl is riddled with bizarre quirks and idiosyncrasies – consider his casual insistence upon removing cigarettes from others’ mouths, or the wryly comical over-ardour with which he discusses his “Temple of Death”, or especially his ritualised hair-combing procedure, in which he caresses the heads of his corpses before brushing his own thinning locks – and Herz doesn’t waste the opportunity to take potshots at those of his ilk. It’s soon discovered that this ‘perfect’ family man acquiesces to his adulterous impulses with laughably ordered regularity (“only on the first Thursday of the month!”); his fastidious observance of socially-sanctioned morality a mere ruse for the simmering amorality within.

Equal parts drama, horror and satire, Herz’s anxious synthesis of tones builds – alongside his stylistic erraticism – the backbone of a brazenly eclectic approach to his material. The director exploits this schizophrenic modus operandi for two immediate ends: first, to imaginatively mould his deranged protagonist’s fragmentary perspectives into a subjective narrative of insightful vigour; and second, to goad the viewer outside of his/her standardized comfort zone until they’re assailable enough to be ambushed by The Cremator‘s disturbed nucleus. This core displays an aggressively historical bent, with the film’s integration of its late-1930s political context giving rise to the condemnation, not to mention the allegories (the Third Reich can be substituted for any other totalitarian state), that one would envisage from so curious a premise. With these reference points in mind, Herz’s high-octane tributes to the German expressionism of yore play exequially, striking purposefully and powerfully at the cultural magnitude of all that was lost following Hitler’s rapid, ruthless ascendancy.

Of course, Herz’s bereavements go well beyond the artistic; his plot acting as an eerie pre-emptor of the human tolls that would eventually become synonymous with National Socialism in practice. The director’s shrewdest study however, concerns that more intrinsic element within the ideology’s (and, later, the regime’s) rise: the gaping void of compassion. We realise early on that Kopfrkingl is a morally-deficient hypocrite, but his idealistic fluidity nonetheless startles with its accelerated descent into opportunistic savagery. Notice, for example, the slippery transience of his patriotism: initially identifying himself as “purely Czech”, he then discovers “a drop of German blood” before allowing himself to be cast as a fully-fledged Übermenschen. It’s this final transformation which initiates a similarly mercurial attitude to his own family (all of whom have been “tainted” by his wife’s Jewish heritage), pointing the way towards a Final Solution with its contemptuous dismissal and subsequent destruction of these purest of human relationships.

Whilst nourishing a culture of audience bewilderment, The Cremator‘s surface flair dualistically invents a cinematic nightmare through its visual rendering of Kopfrkingl’s psychosis. Herz exploits his myriad of techniques to create an acute psychological proximity to his deranged antihero; the intimacy marking the disquieting pith of his thesis: the style in itself stupefies, but it’s the exposition of the internal hysteria which horrifies. The director swims deep into Kopfrkingl’s troubled pneuma, bringing each of the character’s malevolent ailments to the fore for audience scrutiny (one shouldn’t be surprised when confronting a mirror image or few). Understandably, the natural effect of such devotion is to inhibit character development elsewhere. But therein lies the strength of Herz’s achievement, for Kopfrkingl’s inundation of the narrative itself becomes a commentary on the subservience accorded to and extracted by the tyrannical lunatics of past and present – the incubus being, of course, that the character is not so much a lunatic as he is a capitalist everyman and overeager conformist. As the director lurches towards his frenzied finale, the reduction of human life to anonymous archetypes fails to diminish the harrowing implications of the injustices on-screen. We need not know people to comprehend the impact of their suffering. As Herz so persuasively argues beneath the hysterics: knowledge is overrated, and empathy is everything.

Perhaps the film’s most poignant ongoing thread is the conspicuous lack of a female presence to counter the fascistic manoeuvrings of the men. Kopfrkingl’s soliloquies saturate the narrative with his pseudo-tender male chauvinism, objectifying all women (only when viewed through the prism of sexual desire can they be granted the gift of speech) and relegating their voices to the non-diegetic orchestrations of the soundtrack. Composer Zdenek Liska imaginatively moulds the sounds and strains of this feminine oppression into choral harmonies of cherubic splendour – exalting the female voice as a communicative medium of unparalleled ethereality. As our protagonist sets about extinguishing this vital life-force with methodical precision then, the absurdities of the director’s vision gradually fade away to leave only the excruciating barbarity that they once sheltered. The Cremator thus bares its teeth as a tale of loss. A loss of values, a loss of integrity, and finally – most devastatingly – a loss of humanity: that virtue which needs to be upheld against all odds. In Juraj Herz’s spiritual replication of the Nazi terror, one man’s failure to do so allows the horrifying to swiftly, effectively morph into the tragic. And as Kopfrkingl’s numerous descendants continue to remind us, that tragedy very much remains an ongoing reality.

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  1. #1 by danyulengelke on March 4, 2012 - 18:45

    Love this movie. I wish Czech cinema was more popular stateside.

    Also, was linked here by your upload of ‘Sirk in the 70′s: Fassbinder’s Fear Eat the Soul’. It’s how I introduce the work of Fassbinder to first time viewers.

    Keep up the great work.

    Cheers!

    -Daniel @ livingwithliteraturee.wordpress.com

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