I picked up a few Eastern European films on DVD this week which inadvertently led me to grab this 1968 Czech film off my shelf. The Cremator directed by Juraj Herz tells the story of Karl, a professional, petit-bourgeois cremator who's murder fantasies are given full expression as the Nazi's begin their occupation of Czechoslovakia. Karl's profession allows him to dispose of the bodies without suspicion - for his new Nazi masters it’s a matter of ethnic cleansing, for Karl it's releasing the living from the suffering of life. For such a dark story, the film is surprisingly humorous - look out for the running joke about the bickering couple who turn up at various points of the film, and Rudolf Hrušínský playing the cremator himself is wonderfully charming and amusing. The story which was adapted from a book may have its origins in the murderous exploits of Marcel Peroit, a doctor who murdered and robbed Jews and resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France, and the film has a certain resonance with Fritz Lang’s M and Ulli Lommel’s M inspired film The Tenderness of the Wolves. And certainly Repulsion, Polanski’s study of a deranged young woman would appear to be a key influence on the film.
As befitting such a grim story, The Cremator is suitably nightmarish, shot in stark black and white and full of strange dreamy surrealism, conveying Kurt’s increasing mania. Herz's direction is often magnificent, using a number of arresting visual techniques like rapid-fire montage, extreme close-ups, a dazzling use of wide angle lens, and a wonderfully disorientating editing style that shifts time and space from scene to scene, causing the viewer to readjust his focus of where and when the film is taking place. The Cremator is available as a very pleasing R0 DVD from Second Run. The sole extra on the DVD is an insightful introduction from the Quay Brothers, and the DVD comes packaged with a fine booklet of notes and essays by Daniel Bird. Highly recommended.