Saving The World With The Cremator | Film Review
A film review to honour 100 years since the birth of Rudolf Hrušínský written by Max Leonard Hitchings
“There’s no difference in blood. The same as with human ashes.” - Dr Bettleheim
Spalovač mrtvol is directed by Juraj Herz, and based on the novel of the same name by Ladislav Fuks. Fuks’s work focusses primarily on the lives of those who lived under the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in the late 1930’s. Both Herz and Fuks grew up in this situation, with Fuks witnessing the persecution of his Jewish friends and being used as forced labour at 19 years old, and Herz, himself Jewish, being imprisoned at Ravensbrück as a child and losing around 60 members of his family during the holocaust.
One can only imagine that the horrors that both witnessed in their youth fed into this astounding work of cinema.
The film opens with a disorienting series of extreme closeups of animals at the zoo - the place where Karel Kopfrkingl, the titular cremator, met his wife 17 years previously.
Almost the first words that come oozing out of Kopfrkingl’s mouth, with the tone of a cat purring and licking its chops, are about death, as he muses on the leopard that once occupied the cage being “relieved of his shackles,” by “kind nature”. This idea, that life is cruel and death offers a sweet release, is central to the protagonist’s philosophy from the very start of the film, and this only intensifies as he is buoyed along by two hemispheres of thought - the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, and the cruel disregard for human life of the Nazis. Not such an unusual combination, when one considers Hitler’s fascination with eastern religions.
Kopfrkingl worries that he does not bring in enough money as a cremator to support his wife and two children, and so he decides that he will employ several ‘agents’ on a commission basis, and also throws a party to drum up business. At this party, the guests are denied their liquor and cream cakes, given only weak coffee, and look upon their host, astonished, as he removes their cigars from their mouths and stubs them out.
Kopfrkingl stands at a lectern and gives a kind of sermon-cum-advertisement, on the virtues of cremation (though in reality, at this time Czechoslovakia was heavily involved in the international cremation movement, the Czechoslovak Cremation Society hosted a large international congress in Prague in 1936, and the method was gaining in popularity), and reads from his book on Tibet: “Suffering is an evil we must be rid of, or at least alleviate. The sooner a man turns to dust the sooner he is free, transformed, enlightened, reincarnated.”
It is at this party that an old wartime acquaintance, Walter Reinke, alongside whom Kopfrkingl fought for Austria, shows up - a reunion that sets off a chain of events that changes Kopfrkingl for ever, as it quickly transpires that his friend is a member of the Nazi party.
Kopfrkingl is obsessed with death, sees his vocation as a cremator as helping to release the souls within the bodies he burns, combs the hair of corpses awaiting cremation and then combs his hair with the same comb, and is seemingly plagued by intrusive sexual thoughts as well. He visits a brothel once a month and has a love of classical music.
The film is absolutely filled with his voice, every line delivered in a mellifluous, balanced, pharyngeal drawl.
When he takes his family to a funfair, he watches a carousel full of beautiful young women, but his eyes truly light up in the wax museum, where he, along with several audience members, is treated to a Grand Guignol style display of murder.
He is also delusional, believing that a painting he sees in a shop of Emiliano Chamorro Vargas, president of Nicaragua, could pass for (or even be) the French politician Luis Marin, Minister of Pensions in the Poincaré cabinet.
Throughout the film, he sees visions of a woman with black hair, who visits him at the crematorium and in the shops.
When the Germans begin to occupy the border, Reinke’s Nazi rhetoric starts to influence Kopfrkingl - one choice cut sees the friend claiming that it would be a kindness to the “poor unfortunate Jews” to spy on them and find out “what they say and think” - and Kopfrkingl soon begins to realise that the coming conflict will present a delicious opportunity for him to cremate countless bodies and thereby liberate their souls. It isn’t clear if he is actually taken in by Reinke’s ideology, or simply exploits it to facilitate the realisation of his own fantasies.
Spalovač mrtvol is edited marvelously by Jaromír Janáček, in such a way that one scene flows into another seamlessly, which, although disconcerting at times, perfectly portrays the stream of our protagonist’s consciousness as he travels inexorably towards the film’s conclusion. Rudolf Hrušínský is wonderfully compelling and creepy throughout as Kopfrkingl, and Zdeněk Liška’s score (re-released on vinyl by Finders Keeper’s records in 2013) is haunting and atmospheric.
With its black-as-night satire on Nazi discourse, a protagonist who enjoys burning bodies, and a third act that is as grim as it is hysterical, it is little surprise that Spalovač mrtvol was banned upon its release, as with so many Czechoslovak New Wave films, and lay unwatched for twenty years until the fall of Communism.
It is testament to both the writing of the character and Hrušínský’s performance that Kopfrkingl does not come across as evil or of bad intention - quite the opposite in fact; as with so many who do appalling things, it is his unwavering conviction that he’s doing good that provides the horror.
A few interesting facts:
- Rudolf Hrušínský appears in every scene of the film
- The scenes were shot in three crematoria with real corpses inside coffins.
- Kopfrkingl's apprentice Dvořák is played by Academy award winner Jiri Menzel (Closely Observed Trains) who fainted during scenes shot in crematoria.
You can get Czech release here.
Or Criterion Collection here.