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Juraj Herz 1969 film The Cremator takes place during the Second World War just as Nazi forces are about to Czechoslovakia. Here we meet a man named Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky) who spends his days working at a crematorium. He's got some rather unorthodox ideas in his head about using his particular and unique set of skills to essentially do away with the suffering of certain aspects of society. At night he goes home to his wife (Vlasta Chramostová) and seems to have a particular obsession with The Tibetan Book Of The Dead.
At a social gathering, he reconnects with a man named Walter Reineke (Ilja Prachar), who years back he served alongside during the First World War. They talk and Reineke convinces Kopfrkingl that, with the impending German takeover, he should make a point of proclaiming the fact that he himself has German heritage, assuming that it would be advantageous to him under the current political climate. Reineke does just that, and then starts to wonder if the fact that he's married to a woman with Jewish ancestry might be an impediment to his career. This could also be a problem for their two children.
A genuinely odd mix of dark humor, social commentary and occasional doses of horror, The Cremator is a difficult film to classify and genuinely unique picture. It's visually quiet impressive, the stark black and white photography by Stanislav Milota doing an excellent job of capturing some interesting and very effective locations. The score from Zdenek Liska is also very strong, highlighting the ups and downs that Kopfrkingl's character goes through as the film progresses. On a technical level, it's very well done and interesting overall, the use of mirrors and quirky angles helping to keep things just ever so slightly off kilter, close up shots of smiling children and the strange bits of décor littered throughout the movie as well as a semi-regular focus on unusual architecture helping in this arena as well.
Narratively speaking, the film is pretty wild, the simple plot synopsis provided above not really able to quite to it justice. There is quite a lot going on here, a lot of social commentary and criticism worked into the details of the storyline that make some interesting barbs at different aspects of European culture and how things were handled during the Second World War. This mixes in with the elements of the film revolving around Kopfrkingl's story to create a multilayered film, horror mixing with humor mixing with politics all at the same time.
At the center of all of this is a strong performance from Rudolf Hrusinsky. If his work here is seemingly a little self-aware at times, that's okay, as he's pretty much perfect in the part. He's got a very expressive face, his eyes in particular are very good at communicating things to the audience, and it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job in the part than he. Vlasta Chramostová is also very good as his wife and Ilja Prachar just fine as Reineke but Hrusinsky definitely leaves the strongest impression here, making the role completely his own and going all the way with it.
The Cremator comes back to Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection on a 50GB disc in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.66.1 widescreen with the feature taking up just over 29GBs of space on the disc. Taken from a restoration done using the dupe positive negative in 2019, it looks very good. Contrast looks great and there's a lot of impressive detail, depth and texture here. The picture always looks nice and filmic, showing the expected amount of natural film grain but not much in the way of serious print damage. Black levels are good and the image is free of any noticeable compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction issues. All in all, this is a very nice picture.
The Czech language 24-bit LPCM Mono track, which comes with optional English subtitles, is also pretty solid. Levels are well-balanced and there are no problems with any audible hiss or distortion. Range is understandably limited by the source materials but there are problems with the mix at all, it sounds just fine and would seem to be an accurate representation of the source materials.
Extras start off with a twenty-three-minute documentary from 2011 mostly made up of Juraj Herz visiting various locations used in the shoot and talking about the part that they played in the filming of The Cremator. It's an interesting piece that shows some of the locations in a more modern context, while Herz' insight proves valuable in that it puts us into his headspace a bit, letting us understand why he made some of the creative decisions that he made.
Criterion has also included The Junk Shop, which is Herz's 1965 debut short film, presented in a presentation taken from an all new high definition digital transfer. It's an unusual short about what happens to some people who work at a paper recycler and it is given quiet a nice transfer here. You can see some of the director's style starting to from even here, early in his career.
Up next is an eighteen-minute interview with film programmer Irena Kovarova that covers the look of the film and the style employed by Herz and company in locking down the movie's unique visuals. The disc also holds a 2017 documentary from that details the life and times of composer Zdeněk Liška that includes interviews with filmmakers Herz, Jan Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers and a few others. A fifteen-minute interview with actor Rudolf Hrušínský from 1993 is also found, and in it he discusses his work on this picture. A trailer for the feature as well as menus and chapter selection options round out the extra features on the disc.
Additionally, Criterion provides an insert booklet containing credits for the feature and the presentation as well as technical notes on the disc alongside an essay by Jonathan Owen entitled No One Will Suffer.
The Cremator is as strange and genuinely weird a film as it is effective and fascinating. The Criterion Collection has done an excellent job bringing this picture to Blu-ray in North America, providing the film with a great presentation and a nice array of supplemental material. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.