The Cremator is based on a book by Ladislav Fuks, whose work was largely about the impact of the Nazi occupation on Czechoslovakia. Fuks also co-authored the screenplay. The narrative follows a professional cremator in Prague just before the Nazi invasion. He becomes increasingly deranged as tensions rise, and eventually gets involved with the Nazis.
It is a surreal and unsettling black comedy centered on a great performance by Rudolf Hrusínský, who resembles an Asian Peter Lorre (although he is not, in fact, Asian), and is on a twisted mission to save the world. It features some of the most impressive use of fish-eye lens shooting in cinema, right up there with Citizen Kane and Seconds, as well as some truly astonishing tracking shots and angles, and imagery that will never leave you.
The Cremator was clearly influenced by German Expressionism. Former puppeteer and animator Juraj Herz was not really a part of the Czech New Wave, which was snobbish about filmmakers who didn’t have a film-school background but instead started as puppeteers, like Herz and Jan Švankmajer. Herz’s background gave him a surrealist animator’s look at film, which makes it my favourite Czech film, or at least on par with Věra Chytilová’s Daisies.
The Cremator really must be seen to believed—it’s indescribable. As good as those early Milos Forman films are, I’d rather watch this anytime. It’s one of the few films that shows how people were sort of led into working for the Nazis, and the lure of fascism at the time—other Czech films of the period seem so tame by comparison. The score by Zdeněk Liška is fantastic, using distorted neo-Classical sounds that fits the imagery really well.
The Blu-Ray includes a Quay Brothers introduction, a short film called The Junk Shop, based on a short story by popular Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, who also wrote Closely Observed Trains. It’s a great, strange offering that’s more similar to the Forman school of Czech comedy. There’s also a commentary by Diabolique magazine editor Kat Ellinger, and a podcast from The Projection Booth with Mike White and critic Samm Deighan.