Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Starring Rudolf Hrusinsky, Vlasta Caramostova, Jiri Menzel, Ilja Prachar
Directed by Juraj Herz
Released by Dark Sky Films
If you’re like me, or most other horror fans out there, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of The Cremator. Until I got an e-mail that it was finally coming to DVD after years of relative obscurity, I had no idea it even existed.
That’s to be expected, actually. The film was made in Czechoslovakia, not really a bastion of popular cinema, though it is a country known for bizarre films of surrealistic horror. The fact that it has surfaced at all is a testament to just how great modern technology can be, rescuing films from the brink of oblivion and giving them the best treatment possible in the digital format.
The Cremator tells the story of Karl Kopfringl, owner of a crematorium in Czechoslovakia during the time Hitler’s Third Reich was preparing to march into the country and add it to their list of conquests. He is a simple man, with a loving wife and two children, a man who believes that it his duty to free the souls of humans from their suffering, bringing them closer to their creator, by cremating them upon death. Kopfringl is a man who truly loves what he does for a living.
During a dinner party held to celebrate his choice of a new assistant, he runs into an old friend who he later has over for dinner with his wife and children. His friend begins to plant the seeds that Karl should embrace his German heritage, explaining that it’s a side of his background that he should prod; for it is a strong people he comes from. The seeds eventually take root, and after a few more conversations Karl begins to understand that he should not fear the Germans who are in the midst of invading his land, but instead embrace them… join them, if possible, no matter what sacrifices have to be made on the way, and the breakdown that you see at the very edges of his personality for the entire film is accelerated. The end finds Karl believing that he is the reincarnation of the Dahlia Lama, sent to Earth to save the world, which he sees as possible through the use of massive furnaces the Germans have asked him to oversee the creation of…
The strength of The Cremator, the main elements that make it a classic waiting for rediscovery, do not solely lie in the story. Though haunting and disturbing on it’s own, both the amazing cinematography and sublime performance by Hrusinsky are what made The Cremator one of the most memorable films I’ve ever seen. The way it is shot does not invoke a time of cinema in it’s infancy, as I’m sure it was close to in Czechoslovakia during this period, but rather the work of a masterful artist deftly creating a masterpiece of celluloid. Odd angles, dangerous close-ups, striking lighting, and the sometimes jarring editing choice of new scenes beginning on the same shot the last one ended on all combine to make The Cremator look and feel years ahead of it’s time.
The movie itself is crisp and beautiful, with the high-contrast black and white virtually pristine and bereft of any noticeable print damage. The sound is presented in 2.0 stereo, as one would expect, and it is also clear and strong. This is especially important to both get the full impact of Hrusinsky’s intoxicating voice and the lush soundtrack that permeates almost every frame of the film, composed by longtime Jan Svankmajer collaborator Zdenek Liska.
I’m happy to have been able to finally see this film and enjoy it for what it is. Fans of surrealistic cinema who prefer their horror of a more cranial origin should seek out The Cremator.
4 1/2 out of 5
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