To say Juraj Herz’s World War II dark comedy is bleak is a severe understatement
While I do love when my favorite films get the “Criterion treatment,” I’m always excited to check out the historical treasures of international cinema that Criterion manages to bring to American audiences for the first time. Their new release of prolific Czech director Juraj Herz’s The Cremator is one of thirty films acquired in a 2017 Janus Films deal with the Czech Republic’s National Film Archive, and is part of their mission of preserving these landmark films of the Czech New Wave. My only experience with Czech cinema has been Jaromil Jireš’ broodingly bizarre Valerie and her Week of Wonders, and I’d only heard wholly positive recommendations for The Cremator, with little knowledge of its premise or content.
For better or worse, I’m glad I went into Herz’s film blind. The Cremator is a stunningly-shot portrait of systemic evil at its most terrifyingly mundane, and provides a watch that is as chilling as it is bleakly humorous.
The Cremator follows Karl Kopfrkingl, a mortician whose devotion towards his job has long since crossed the border into fanaticism. Fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism and reincarnation, Karl believes his earthly duty to be liberating souls from their physical prisons via his incendiary skillset. However, there’s other smoke on the horizon — the impending invasion of the Nazis — and government officials sympathetic to their cause may have new services for Karl that the titular cremator is all too welcome to provide.
The Cremator’s greatest feat is how Herz is able to set a tone that allows his audience to wholly digest its lead’s macabre philosophy. For all of its horrific subject matter, The Cremator is a surprisingly easy watch, from its experimental editing to its innovative near-invisible scene transitions which place the audience in Karl’s scatterbrained yet collected mindset. The film’s style lends itself to drawing comedy from its horrors based on what its Karl himself finds to be humorous; it’s a uniquely unsettling feeling that draws both laughs and chills. As the film continues, Herz’s attention towards the increasingly widening complications in Karl’s rationalization of the horrors he participates in feels like a continuous shock of ice water…lest his audience falls too sharply into sympathy or complacency towards Karl’s endeavors.
Criterion’s release of The Cremator is a welcome arrival for both newcomers and longtime fans of Czech cinema, providing a package that illuminates Herz’s sobering film with a variety of contextual supporting material.
Criterion presents The Cremator in a new 4K restoration by the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The film is presented in 1.66:1 1080p with an uncompressed LPCM monaural track. The film’s stunning cinematography is well preserved here, free of artifacting or banding on any complex textures or black screens. The film’s black-and-white stock retains a healthy spectrum of grays, allowing for an impressively rich and sharp transfer. The film’s audio track retains just as much sonic clarity for a mono track — though I do wonder if, like similar film productions, portions of the film’s dialogue were recorded in post as the film’s spoken word comes across much clearer than other diegetic elements.
- Booklet featuring an essay by Czech film historian and analyst Jonathan Owen.
- This Way to the Cooling Chambers: A 2011 documentary that features Herz touring the various shooting locations of the film, including the still-operating crematoria featured heavily in the film.
- Madness and the Macabre: A new 17-minute interview with film programmer Irena Kovarova about The Cremator’s production history and evolution of its visual style.
- Music by Zdenek Liska: A 54-minute 2017 documentary profiling The Cremator’s composer, featuring interviews with Herz, animators the Quay Brothers, Jan Švankmajer, and other artists.
- Rudolf Hrušínský: A 1993 profile of The Cremator’s lead actor from the Czech TV program Inventura Fabia, focusing on Hrušínský’s career as both actor and director.
- Junk Shop: Director Juraj Herz’s 1965 debut short film, focusing on “the peculiar patrons of a recycling facility.” Herz’s inventive editing and wild-eyed look at the mundanity of modern life are on full display here as they would later be in The Cremator, as are the signature styles of many of his later feature collaborators.
- Trailer featuring the film’s 2019 restoration.
The Cremator is now available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.