Spalovac mrtvol (The Cremator) – A film by Juraj Herz
What a magnificent film experience! This film is touted as a film for horror buffs, and wile I can understand the reference, I would never cement it it that genre. For me, this is more an example of the Czech new wave, and a fine translation of a timeless story from one art form to another. The film script was written my Herz, along side of Ladislav Fuks who wrote the novel of the same name. I guess, having never read the novel, I’m in no position to really cry excellence in the transference between mediums, except that so much psychological depth has been flawlessly and faithfully reproduced in this film, I can only assume this lived in the original book.
Spalovac mrtvol is the story of a man (Karl Kopfrikingl brilliantly played by Rudolf Hrusinsky) who is a professional cremator. It is hard to tell originally if this was just a simple man given an intense job that drives him to a kind of madness, or if this is a man with a penchant for the macabre who takes this job out of a morbid fascination. One thing is for sure, Karl Kopfrikingl is both deeply creepy and (disturbingly) instantly recognisable. He is a tablet, a blank slate of sorts that regurgitates a distorted vision of the snippets of philosophy he manages to pick up during his day. The combination of his own lack of agency and his fascination for the macabre results in the emergence of a Frankenstein’s monster, an unstoppable evil created by the distorted responses to the political and social happenings of his day.
The thing that is so terrifying about Karl is that he is an every man. We all know the creepy dude that ‘can’t get a girlfriend’ who never quite fitted in at school. Karl is the kind of man who appears behind you suddenly that you didn’t hear come into the room; he touches too much, and his touch is oddly warm and ice cold at the same time; he has small personal space so that he stands too close; he has an unexplainable depth combined with a very low IQ combined with an intense fascination with the very little he can grasp; he restricts his vices in public while indulging in them in secret, and believes this to be a consistent upholding of a moral code. Indeed, the film plays wonderfully with the ridiculous through Karl, as he parrots off the little he grasps in a series of regal speeches he performs (more than communicates) to his family, and to subordinates at work. He is, in short, a deeply ugly creature, that finds a home nestled in the arms of Nazism, but one cant help recognise the implication here that there are many little Karl Kopfrikingl’s in society just waiting for some sort of social pocket through which they can display their talents. It is not permission Karl needs, as much as recognition, for at the heart of this sad little man is a desire for power and control over the most terrifying of human experiences – death.
Of course Ladislav Fuks wrote mostly about Nazi occupation (I just wrote preoccupation, which I think is a rather neat little Freudian slip) – in fact he wrote obsessively about it. The film is primarily based on that subject matter. With the distortions and the social tendrils of Nazism, Karl finds a home and place consistent with his own internal hypocrisies. I have to confess, being neither Jewish nor German, I’ve always felt on the outside of the Jewish / Nazi conversation. This film (and I took a glance at the subject matter of Fuks other novels) and all of Fuks other novels, takes the examination into different areas. He looks at the spill of Nazism into society and how it finds its people who, although not necessarily bright, have access to power in unusual and different ways. Nazism was all about the rise of the underdog after all. It was a cry to the oppressed. We forget that it was a call to the disenfranchised with an offering of power. Every small community in all culture from Goths, Priests and Philosophers through Metal heads, rev heads and sports fans, considers themselves superior for the very thing that marginalises them. The desire to have that legitimised or rather, recognised as superior is the primary reason d’etre of any cult like group. When these groups are given power, they almost can’t believe that they were right all along and the desire to establish themselves is overwhelming.
Add to this disturbing portrait, the incredible new wave cinematic beauty of Jurah Herz and you have a psychological masterpiece, that forces us at times, to laugh at this terrifying scenario. Hertz uses camera distortions, and cut images – the opening scenes in the zoo (the only time we hear Karl’s poor wife speak – and it is to tell him how good he has been to them) when close-ups of Karl’s disturbing penetrating stare are juxtaposed against the muted repressed anger in the caged animals eyes are breathtaking – to give us an added sense of the unease of society as well as the disturbing precipice Karl is always teetering on. In a marvellous scene where the family, who can’t watch carp being killed for their dinner, hover outside the door to the bathroom (the most beautiful room in the house) the fish’s grasp for air, is posited against the close up of mouths consuming their bodies as if the people themselves are the fish out of water, drowning in the slow death that is called life, consumption pitted against destruction and ash. Karl waxes lyrical about reincarnation and the circle of life, but when it comes to human beings, to have them feed the ground is a disgrace and they must be turned to ash and their souls set free to come back as something ‘else’.
In their theory too social taboos, that of cannibalism and necrophilia are played out with delightful subtlety. You just KNOW when the camera is off that Karl is playing with the many number of corpses under his care and his fascination with the return of the dead, usually results in a haunted stare at his own meal, or at pink fleshy meats in a butchers window.
The people in karl’s life are symbols of his weakness. From the start he is talking up his life, his relationship with his wife, his children’s talents and perfections, and it is instantly recognisable that this is a farce and that Karl is deeply disappointed with them. He sees his own weaknesses reflected in them – His wife is pure and good and wooden, his daughter only moderately talented and interested in a young man and his son effeminate and gawkish. As close friends question his evaluation of his family Karl falls like a house of cards and changes his own opinion in a matter of an evening. Where previously his guilt at any family betrayal played itself out in his own fear of accumulating filth under his skin, in one evening of flummery, he turns that filth toward his family, purifying his own self sanctified fantasy of himself as a supreme spiritual being. (Buddha to be exact).
Flattery is all it takes for Karl to abandon a life of disappointment. He is flattered by high level political talk, by being trusted with roles of espionage, by women being made available for him, and by the free flow of food and wine. In this way, I found Karls representation of masculinity to be brilliantly timeless. All it takes for this man of no consequence to become a bastion of death and destruction is flattery. It is women who have cared for him in his life; his mother in law has provided materially for them, on top of his wife’s dowry. It is a woman who can kill the carp that Karl can’t face, but morbidly listens to. At Karl’s own admission, all he has been able to do is decorate the house. He can only provide for a facade, he has given nothing materially that has contributed to his or his families foundations. Women have looked after him, have led him, just as the ghost of a dead woman haunts him throughout the film, his masculinity is always hovering on the edge, a combination of self loathing and obligation and intense circumspect fear.
I could go on and on about this film and never do it justice. It is a truly magnificent piece of cinema and I cant recommended it highly enough.