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Cremator (The Criterion Collection), The
It's hard to think of a film that so viscerally and horrifyingly captures the banality of evil than surrealist Czech director Juraj Herz's alt-horror Holocaust masterpiece The Cremator. Herz slyly puts together a head-spinning mix of an exuberant and borderline experimental visual style with a realistic character study that chills the audience to the bone by becoming more matter-of-fact as its protagonist slips more and more into genocidal glee. It's bold, endlessly imaginative in its satirical grotesquery, and an extremely disturbing experience. It's also one of the most striking studies on how expectedly human abhorrent evil can be.
The subject is Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky), a blindly ambitious businessman with dreams of using his crematorium as a jump-off point for greater success. He's always bragging and scheming about his many different plans for expanding his riches, a non-stop machine of unchecked narcissism exposed to whomever is unlucky enough to be in his vicinity. He's so manically obsessed about his plans in life, that he can't even stop talking about them while having sex. Makes me wonder whether or not Paddy Chayefsky was influenced by this scene while writing a similar sequence about another toxically ambitious character played by Faye Dunaway in Network.
A personality like Kopfrkingl's only needs a slight push into being made to feel cosmically important before he's engaged in psychotic acts. Such a push comes from his Nazi friend Walter (Ilja Prachar), who sweet-talks Kopfrkingl into joining the "cause". Even though he's Czech, Kopfrkingl has German blood, and Walter sells him on how much more efficient he can be with his crematorium business if he became a Nazi. The story takes place right before World War II is about to break out, and unfortunately we're all aware of the disgusting role crematoriums are about to play in Hitler's final solution.
There's only one problem: Kopfrkingl's wife is half-Jewish, which means that his entire family is "contaminated". For a detail-obsessed clean freak like Kopfrkingl, a fork in the road with a handful of troubling choices appears. Herz imaginatively uses a manic visual style, full of quick cuts and uncomfortably extreme close-ups, to capture Kopfrkingl's increasingly disturbed mind. But to contrast this, he provides a soothing classical score during the most violent sequences, while directing his lead to provide the most monotone voice-over narration possible. This audiovisual contradiction professes the insanity of Kopfrkingl's actions, while chillingly reassuring us that such a psychopath can be created out of the most seemingly benign-looking person.
Criterion's new 1080p transfer of this underappreciated surrealist classic captures the almost blindingly white and bright visuals of the film, utilized to make the audience feel as uncomfortable in Kopfrkingl's shoes as possible. The transfer wisely doesn't attempt to scrub much of the heavy grain inherent to the cinematography, while it clears up as many of the blemishes as possible.
The lossless 1.0 track offers great dynamic range and balance between the incessant voice over and the classical score. There's very little in the way of sound effects, so the track represents the film's minimal mix with great clarity.
The Junk Shop: The first film Herz ever directed is presented in its entirety.
Interview With Irena Kovarova: The film programmer goes into great detail about the film's visual style, and why it brings out such a visceral reaction from the audience. She also briefly talks about Herz's filmography.
Zdenek Liska: The film's composer discusses how the light score underlined the narrative's horror.
Rudolph Hrusinsky: The lead actor briefly talks about his experiences making The Cremator in this 1993 interview.
Visiting Filming Locations: In this featurette from 2011, Herz visits some of the filming locations for his film, most of which are surprisingly intact.
We also get a Trailer.
Even though I wholeheartedly recommend The Cremator as an unsung semi-surrealist, semi-starkly-realist masterpiece, it's certainly not for everyone. It's not graphic or gory in its horror, but it is a personally taxing experience. Therefore, my recommendation comes with an asterisk about how deep into the dark crevices of the human psyche you're willing to traverse.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com