Atop a Throne of Ashes: On Juraj Herz's 'The Cremator'

Rudolf Hrusínský as Karl Kopfrkingl in The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol) (IMDB)

Far from being escapist entertainment, Herz's The Cremator is a dissection of evil and how deluded one becomes in willing themselves to power.

The Cremator
Juraj Herz


21 April 2020


"I'm always speaking of merciful nature, kind fate, and God's compassion." —Karl Kopfrkingl, The Cremator

Welcome to Prague, circa 1939. A city where the threat of conflict looms large, massage parlors and boxing matches are crawling with newly minted members of the Nazi Party, and there is more to wax figures than meets the eye. Within this milieu, we befriend a curious gentleman by the name of Karel Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský, engaging in a hellish tour-de-force), a career cremator and, for the time being, a family man. Unfortunately for Karel, he is a man in the midst of being swept up by the tide of history, and we'll see just how desperate he is not to drown.

The initial moments of Juraj Herz's The Cremator (Spalovac mrtvol) are the opening steps of a macabre dance in which the choreography is defined by foreboding and disorientation. Karel, our cremator-cum-fascist, is feeling contemplative during a family outing to the zoo. He reminisces with his wife, "My sweet, this is the blessed spot where we first met 17 years ago."

Film Strip by joseph_alban(Pixabay License / Pix

Juxtaposed with this dialogue are close-ups of tigers and lions, stalking back and forth within their cages—eager to escape and stalk the world like the nationalist ideologies of the 1930s—an extreme close-up of Kopfrkingl's stressed forehead, the weary eyes worn by Lakmé, his wife, and his two children, caught playing inside a cage. "Come now, children! Cages are for dumb creatures," he says, smiling as though aware of what the future holds for Europe. The kinetic organization of this montage, wrought upon by the camerawork of Stanislav Milota, is startling, as the dance is fast, and we don't know why the film steps in this or that direction. Yet, within this confusion, there is a sense that this will not end well.

In Erich Fromm's 1957 essay "The Authoritarian Personality", the German psychologist attempts to shed light on the fascistic tendencies that swept through the world in the first half of the 20th Century. According to Fromm, the authoritarian personality takes on two forms: Leader and follower, or the active- and passive-authoritarian. Leaders and followers exist in a symbiotic relationship and both are undergirded by an "inability to rely on one's self, to be independent…to endure freedom."


The Cremator, whose camera maintains a close eye on Karel, displays how one goes from passive- to active-authoritarian. For much of the film, Karel's interactions with others are seen the way he formulates them in his mind. He dominates conversations with outlandish claims and bizarre behavior (including the eerie way he combs the hair of the deceased), with the audience rarely seeing reactions. During the rare moments in which we see how Karel actually fares with others, he comes off as stumbling and frightened, as a man ripe to be imprisoned by ideology.

Early in the film, Karel's meaning, the well of his passions, is the crematorium at which he has worked for nearly two decades. It is via cremation that he believes he is escorting souls to the hereafter, where suffering does not exist. To Karel, cremation is not simply disposal, it is a holy duty. At a party he hosts for friends and potential business partners, he declares, "A crematorium is pleasing to the lord."

Beyond his delusions of divinity, his fixation on death is symbolic of the political slumber he has been in since fighting for the Austrian army in The Great War. But at this party, Walter Reinke (Ilja Prachar), Karel's old army buddy, has returned to awaken him, to initiate his journey from passive- to active-authoritarian.

Reinke, already a member of the Nazi Party, overwhelms Karel by challenging the Czech identity he and his family have crafted. Reinke reminds Karel of his German blood and ushers in a period in which the latter begins to forego whatever love he retained for his wife and children. "No one can help his origins," Karel utters at one point in the film, a statement which spells trouble for Lakmé, his half-Jewish wife, and Milli and Zina, his children.

For Fromm, the authoritarian denies love, for it means "recognizing the world as an emotional experience." Karel, however, is obsessed with an imagined purity (symbolized by his choice to remain "abstinent" from alcohol and nicotine for most of the film) and with differing German blood from the blood of his Jewish family, friends, and co-workers. One especially indicative (and visually striking) scene occurs at a carnival, in which Karel, seeing his family mired in reverie, forces them into a wax museum to watch a show about a mass murderer named Laget. It is here that bloodlust is awakened within Karel, a thirst that carries the movie through its third act, in which he begins spying on Jews and cleansing his life of what he views as obstacles to Nazi Party membership and becoming director of the crematorium.


Released a year after the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, The Cremator was the third-most attended film of 1969. However, it was eventually banned and didn't resurface until after the anti-communist Velvet Revolution of 1989. The Criterion Collection's release of this masterpiece of the Czech New Wave, a stunning 4K digital restoration, coincidentally arrives during what Karel would describe as "epoch-making times".

While a pandemic is ravaging health systems across the globe, we have been dealing with the consequences of a resurgence of authoritarian attitudes across the globe. Leaders such as Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, all authoritarian personalities in their own right, have utilized this crisis to foment further division and consolidate power. Karel would sit comfortably as a senior advisor within the Trump administration, holding the president's ear like no other, with both men exchanging endless platitudes and odd stares.

Far from being escapist entertainment, Herz's film is a dissection of evil and how deluded one becomes in willing themselves to power. One can easily see Karel who, towards the end of the film, is hired as a Technical Director for a top-secret German project involving gas furnaces, as a stand-in for Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the Final Solution. Philosopher Hannah Arendt famously and controversially deemed Eichmann the embodiment of the "banality of evil" in her account of his trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). During his execution, she observed the "grotesque silliness" of his last words ("After a short while, gentlemen, we shall all meet again…"), noting that death tricked him into traditional "funeral oratory".

As Karel is driven off in the final moments of the film, towards a future in which the Nazis are ultimately defeated, he utters a similarly benign statement: "I shall save them all. The whole world." Both men, and those of their ilk, when stripped of rationality, prove to be nothing more than clichés—bureaucrats and opportunists who fail to notice the ashes left in their wake.





A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.