CERTIFIED WEIRD: The Cremator (1965) a viscous and bitterly funny romp of the Czech New Wave

The Cremator is a pure gem of the Czechoslovakian New Wave film movement. It’s a bizarrely twisted look at a cremator, who has a deep fascination with reincarnation, Tibetan monks and Aryanization, that finds himself at odds with his family due to his wife and children being Jewish.

For context, Czechoslovakia had just been overrun by the Nazi’s, as the third reich controlled the territory during the early portion of World War II. In Prague, Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský) takes a sick pleasure in his job at the crematorium, citing how the act of burning makes him feel. He sees the act as purely liberating, as this relates back to his beliefs in Tibetan Buddhism. Regardless of Kopfrkingl’s beliefs, his behavior is dangerously concerning and deliciously deviant. 

In a series of events, eventually Kopfrkingl finds himself siding with his oppressors and taking his natural beliefs to new disturbing heights. At this point, the narrative falls completely off the rails and the film brilliantly explores the phenomena that happened to the Czech’s during the World War. Juraj Herz uses the perfect vehicle in Kopfrkingl to experience the dystopian, illogical worldviews and the script explores these themes as they should be: as totally and utterly absurd.

It’s the blackest of black comedies, using the Nazi mission as the backdrop to an elaborate prank the filmmakers play on the audience. The inappropriateness of the humor is what makes The Cremator such a lasting experience, as if we’re laughing at some truly insane: the radicalization of human beings and the absurdity of genocide, captured in the vision of grandeur Kopfrkingl. Early on, he displays a certain pretentiousness that places him above the rest, and that existence is a divine work from God, despite maybe a splash of Jewish blood coursing through his veins.

As for the craft, it’s one of the most provocative films imaginable but the layered visual storytelling allows for many multifaceted jokes to be inserted. The opening scene especially is fucking briliant, setting the stage for Kopfrkingl severe and quick descent into absolute madness, shown through his deceiving eyes and look. The editing from Jaromír Janáček combines beautifully with the music and cinematography, to not only tell the main storyline on the surface, but allows for louder and more biting comedy that comes behind the frail image of civility. Janáček makes clear through the overstimulating quick pacing that something is beyond wrong here.

Lastly, the writing and performances are excellent. All the messaging is hidden under the same veil of ignorance many Czech’s were subjected to during this period and it truly captures the hysteria of living through it all. It’s a film that isn’t trying to provoke simply as a shocking storytelling device, but more so putting the audience in the headspace of friends, family, and neighbors treating one as alien and the bizarre ideas people get when faced with upending tyranny. 

Stray notes:

  • Rudolf Hrusínský was perfect as Kopfrkingl. Right amount of off-putting weirdness while not overplaying it. He conveys the overarching message of the film beautifully
  • The Zdeněk Liška contribution through the music is the correct tone setter, keeping the audience off-balanced and properly engaged 
    • Furthermore, Zdeněk Liška is one of the greatest 
  • A film dealing with penetratingly dark subject matter, but conveys it in such a playful tone that makes it impossible not to laugh. My type of film.

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