It’s unsurprising to learn that director Juraj Herz studied puppetry with his exact contemporary and friend Jan Švankmajer; it comes out in a certain way of viewing and orchestrating people, of using parts of their bodies to represent the whole and of seeing opportunities for playful transition when other filmmakers might find barriers to representation.
In The Cremator, the puppet-master – and the cremator of the title – is one Karl Kopfrkingl. Indeed, in one of the first scenes he is shown orchestrating a social event, dictating who should sit where, what drink should be served, and – with heavy irony and as part of the film’s very blackest of humour – telling people not to smoke. He is beguilingly mild-mannered, a soft-spoken teetotaller who views his work at the crematorium as a benign service, freeing people’s souls for reincarnation, his passion for his work fed by a fascination with Tibet and its burial customs. He’s also an oily, manipulative, grotesque monster, almost terrifyingly bland and composed, and whose smiling mouth never quite matches the calculation or, sometimes, the fear in his eyes.
Kopfrkingl is also a suggestible character, whose profession puts him in a position of great usefulness to the occupying force in the country. Initially non-committal to their presence, his devotion to the cause grows as the prospects of his advancement, along with its promise of access to an exclusive brothel (blondes only), and his own self-delusion increases. His are the actions of a blessed reincarnator, not a mundane stoker. When he gets to the point of saying that he is doing what he does to prevent people’s future suffering in the new ‘higher moral code’ that will be brought about by his masters, then his delusions are almost complete. Of course, devotion to a cause requires self-sacrifice. There’s no place for ‘inferior blood’ in the new order of things, and when it is suggested to him that his own dear wife of nineteen years has half Jewish blood, and that consequently his children are also similarly tainted, then the form of his terrible sacrifice becomes clear.
It takes a second watch to really bring out this shocking film’s careful plotting and planning, and also just how riddled with jokes it is – though these belong to some little-visited netherworld of humour. It is perhaps most chilling in showing just who it is that has it in them to commit atrocities – not just the ranter or the leader, but the civil servant, the quietly-spoken family man, the loving husband.
The playful transitions that I mentioned earlier are most apparent in the slightly disconcerting elisions that take place as one scene melds into another. The more they happen, the more apposite they appear, reinforcing Kopfrkingl’s thinking of how easy, natural and right it is to pass from one state of being to another. From life to death is really no more than picking out a particle from a cup, or removing dust from the surface of a picture, or covering over someone’s name. Likewise this is a fascinating film of pretence, of the unsaid and the implied. Words said often hide the thoughts behind them. In one striking moment, an invitation extended to Kopfrkingl to join ‘the party’ is quite literally overlaid with the connotations of sexual privilege that have been bubbling around in Kopfrkingl’s mind since the beginning.
Zdeněk Liška’s score is eminently fitting, with his musical counterpoints situated somewhere between fairground and liturgical themes. This is not a musical accompaniment for souls in transit to reincarnation though, rather it’s the ironic comment on an absurd, melancholy and tragic game. Watch out too for the opening credits sequence which is Švankmajer-esque in all but name, with its tearing of heads and its tumble and pile of cut-out bodies.
Late in the film, Kopfrkingl is shown against a background of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’. As he is driven off at the end of the film, the reincarnated Buddha on the way to the throne in Lhasa, and having seemingly eluded his own attendant death, he leaves the Garden, and moves across the panel into ‘Hell’, though his mind by now is filled with the glory of another Bosch painting – the ‘Ascent to the Empyrean’.