Posts Tagged Czechoslovak New Wave

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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Daisies (Chytilová, 1966)

Has the desire to transgress ever been as giddily infectious as it is in Daisies (1966)? Though constructed in a manner that stubbornly defies all forms of categorisation, Věra Chytilová’s cinematic acid trip is inseparable from its context: a Czechoslovak “New Wave” feature whose title anticipates Flower Power and whose content foretells the Prague Spring, this eerily prescient film is practically a revolution unto itself. A brisk, seventy-minute shot to the senses that counters the counterculture with its anarchic bravado, Daisies teems to the brim with a psychedelic mêlée of absurdism, Dadaism and nihilism. Whether or not the director would care for such heady philosophies is another matter altogether, for the bulk of the film’s tone is informed by a swaggering rambunctiousness that cogently eulogises the sheer joy of rebellion. It’s this blissful irreverence which thereby reveals itself as the name of Chytilová’s game – and it’s a game in which she has few, if any peers.

Plot and characterisation are but peripheral concepts in this most capricious of satires. Two young women – the exact status of their relationship remains unclear – decide on a whim to go “bad”, and accordingly proceed to run riot in the society to which they had previously subscribed. Daisies‘ shrewd trump card is to have Chytilová running riot alongside them, with both the director and her protagonists thus working in tandem to recreate the rapture of liberation from their respective orders. As the film’s insouciant duo upend and overturn social codes and conventions, Chytilová entirely rescinds the rules of narrative filmmaking, instead choosing to illustrate her gifts as a radical aesthetician. Formal eccentricities are abound: rapid-fire jump-cuts and photomontages, flagrant discrepancies in film stock, and an erratic use of colour filters all serve to electrify her canvas – doing little to unite the disconnected (though interrelated) scenarios, but nonetheless intriguing the viewer enough to function as some sort of visual glue that coagulates the film (Chytilová unsurprisingly revels in the paradox). In Daisies‘ most startling setpiece, the director redefines her spacial parameters, splicing the actors with their settings and embedding them into a cinematic collage that astonishingly renders both foreground and background impotent – the helpless victims of a cubist assault upon the frame.

Any attempts to locate substance in this impenetrably florid exercise are audaciously repelled by the filmmaker’s commitment to ambiguity. In a rare, coherent piece of dialogue, one of the girls tellingly enquires: “Why do they say ‘I love you’? Why don’t they say, for example, ‘egg’?” By querying the sanctity of such an emotionally-loaded phrase, she subliminally points towards an endemic breakdown in everyday communication (if “I love you” has no meaning then what does?) – a concern that Chytilová upholds by exalting action over words and supplanting spoken language with film language. But therein lies the key to the text, for as nonsensical as Daisies aspires to be, its avant-garde farce is not beyond comprehension; fragments of a political agenda are readily discernible upon overcoming and interpreting its visual ingenuity. What, for example, does one make of a character’s decision to slice up phallic food items with a pair of scissors whilst a pining lover professes his devotion down the phone? Or how does one construe the ritual exploitation and subsequent repudiation of all potential “sugar daddies”? Resistant though the film may (quite rightly) be towards feminist labelling – why should all female-centric efforts with a woman behind the camera be instantly suspected as such? – it nevertheless soars as an exhilarating celebration of femininity itself. How refreshing a subversion it is to witness women embracing their bodies, minds and spirits in such reckless abandon, with only the most superficial of needs for those creatures that we know as “men”.

And yet, both director and audience are acutely aware that such indulgences cannot last. Certainly not in a state where citizenship and obedience take precedence over gender and sexuality. Perhaps Daisies‘ sole instance of sincere profundity resides in a sequence that maps the women’s reactions to society’s silent immobilisation of their rebellion: as the males that they challenge now learn to neutralise their delinquency with blanket disregard, our heroines’ ensuing confusion exposes the fundamental need for attention that predicates a successful insurgency. In refusing those needs, the social order unmasks itself as a sterile leviathan; its mundane surfaces an inadequate disguise for the formidable foe which quashes resistance with little hesitation. Surely, sadly, it is naïve to expect anything but. The incendiary merit of Chytilová’s despondent finale – where the “bad girls” offer up a vain appeasement by going “good”, only to then get crushed anyway – derives its weight from the opening montage that it mirrors: a ragged chassé between shots of a turning flywheel and scenes of man-made destruction; the implication of cyclical carnage and the futility of revolutions colouring the picture from its outset.

Within these stark bookends however, the director scribes a manifesto whose guiding principle is exemplified by Daisies‘ most gleeful escapade: a whimsical jaunt in a nightclub, where our beloved twosome throw caution to the wind and replicate the headlining act by dancing and drinking to their hearts’ contents – much to the distaste of their bourgeois comrades. The joie de vivre of partaking in this caper is a welcome contagion that uncovers the film’s deepest, most revelatory tenets by (typically) asking a series of questions. Is it more worthwhile to be a passive observer who engages with society, or an active participant who engages with life? Would we rather exist for a century as unquestioning conformists, or risk an early death by living but for a few brief minutes? For all Chytilová’s glorious abstractions and cryptograms, the mystery of where her film’s allegiance lies is not really a mystery at all – betrayed during Daisies‘s runtime by the iconoclastic potency of her vision, her immortal, concluding tribute merely adds icing to the cake:

Dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle.

Enough said.

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