Often times when a film attempts to merge more than two genres or movement styles into one films, the results are beyond disastrous. The Cremator, a 1969 Czech horror/comedy/drama/experimental film mends all these genres together while being firmly implanted the Czechoslovakian New Wave movement. Filled with absurd, dark humor, this film integrates non-Classical Hollywood camera techniques to portray the protagonist’s slow dive into madness, similar to German Expressionism.
The main character, Karl Kopfrkingl is the director of a crematorium and attempts to prove that cremation is utmost way to free the souls of the dead, an ideal which he inherits from a skewed vision of Tibetan believes. With the Nazi regime and its minions slowly brain-washing Karl into thinking his wife and family are Jewish, he slowly begins to ascend into madness.
The Cremator is not an easy watch for most viewers. The eccentric filmmaking style rarely presents a classical framing. Characters are rarely positioned in the center of the frame during wide shots or medium shots, often with extreme amounts of headroom. Wide-angled lenses are used to portray first-person perspectives, and often touches early Roman Polanski styles, particularly that of Repulsion.
Starting as a black comedy, the film moves quickly into a drama, and later becomes a slasher film. This movement parallels Karl’s state of mind. Invoking a morbid sense of ideals of death, yearning to climb the bureaucratic ladder of the Nazi regime, and later to liberate his family from what would be impending death in his own sort of romanticized fashion. While trying to protect and further his career, he has a dear fascination with Tibet and the religion that surrounds it, and struggles to appease his Nazi supervisors and his enjoyment of the Tibetan religion.
The soundtrack of the film is hauntingly beautiful, yet fitting and assists in the seamless editing transitions of scenes. Karl’s state of mind portrayed in the film makes it difficult to discern exactly where his dreamlike states and reality begin and end, often times we only know about half-way into the next scene. While the film certainly increases the tension in a poetic fashion, the horror aspect of this film is never startling or invokes jump scares, but attempts to shake and chill the very marrow in your bones.
Director Juraj Herz has certainly captured a classic horror that utilizes a variety of genres, national cinematic movements (German Expressionism, Czech New Wave), and religious and spiritual ideals to create a spiraling story that remains authentic and absurd to the very end.