Mar 15, 2021

Manhunter



 

I would be lying if I did not confess that, despite my lifelong interest in true crime and dark subjects in general, I oftentimes get an instantaneous sense of guttural disgust every time I hear about films that—whether intentionally or unintentionally—superficially depict and/or glorify serial killers like David Fincher’s SE7EN (1995) and most of the Hannibal Lecter franchise flicks, so it comes as somewhat of a slightly dark irony that Manhunter (1986) directed by Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans, Heat) is, at least in some ways, one of my favorite films of all-time, but, then again, I love it more because of its style and mise-en-scène than its savage subject matter. Indeed, while I also have some nostalgic affection for Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991)—the second and certainly most popular cinematic adaptation of Thomas Harris’ ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’ novels—Mann’s inordinately corpse cold yet cool and visually mystifying movie is certainly the one I find myself coming back to most often as a serial killer flick that manages to be more stylistically slick than it is thematically sick as if directed by a super sophisticated extraterrestrial with a detached perspective of Lustmord and human emotions and behavior in general. Once described favorably by a reviewer from the Financial Times as, “If Dostoevsky had been hired to script an episode of MIAMI VICE,” the film was actually (but, somehow, unsurprisingly) a commercial bomb that achieved more successful in Europe than the United States and would not achieve the cult status it has today until years of cable TV syndication and various home video releases and of course the great commercial and critical success of The Silence of the Lambs

Originally filmed under the same name as Harris’ source novel Red Dragon (1981), Manhunter was, to the chagrin of auteur Mann, rechristened at the behest of Dino De Laurentiis as the (in)famous Italian producer did not want the film to be confused with Michael Cimino’s shockingly underrated and rather racially based box office bomb Year of the Dragon (1985). Needless to say, the title of the film is not the only thing that De Laurentiis defiled as the same producer, who previously reedited both John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982) and David Lynch’s Dune (1984), also had Mann's movie cut for time yet luckily the standard cut is arguably more immaculate than the director’s cut (which is less than ten minutes longer) as it flows better and has a more otherworldly alien vibe due to missing various exposition scenes. Apparently heavily visually influenced by the ‘high style’ of great production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who was behind such great works as Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971), around the time he started Miami Vice (1984-1990), Mann had certainly yet to develop his signature aesthetic when he directed his first (made-for-TV) movie The Jericho Mile (1979), but his first two theatrical releases Thief (1981) and The Keep (1983) unequivocally demonstrate a singular visual worthy of an old master that feels like a sort of Kubrick-meets-Friedkin neo-expressionist chic (incidentally, according to Friedkin biographer Nat Segaloff, Mann originally wanted the fellow Chicago Jewish filmmaker to play Hannibal).


 

While the novels of source writer Thomas Harris are clearly based on real-life serial killers to the point of gross cliché, Manhunter is completely contra John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) when it comes to aesthetic refinement. Indeed, as Mann once stated himself in regard to his special school of serial killer filmmaking, “I get bored if I treat the events realistically. I’d rather try to conceptualize them. The torments of the human mind included. I think that I express the fantasies in an expressionist way, which always brings me to the fantastic.” For example, instead of depicting the serial killer’s more aberrant ritualistic/fetishistic behavior like ejaculating at the site of his less than festive family slaughters and placing glass in women’s vaginas like in Harris’ source novel, Mann's morosely mad Francis Dollarhyde has a super chic new wave bachelor pad where he blasts Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” while attempting to blow bullets into the boys-in-blue during the film’s semi-surreal climax. Additionally, whereas The Silence of the Lambs—a film that is, somewhat ironically, undoubtedly Demme’s most critically and commercially success work yet arguably intentionally least overtly ‘Demme-esque’—is a coldly clinical yet surprisingly ‘light’ serial killer flick that feels like it could have been directed by its serial killer ‘antihero’ Hannibal (after all, he is the true hero of the film), Mann’s movie is marvelously Mann-esque in the best sense as a singularly stylish cinematic work where, unlike the auteur’s previous unfortunately uneven gothic-horror-holocaust hybrid The Keep (1983), the auteur seamlessly assimilates his style to its source novel (though Harris apparently does not feel the same and apparently only had positive things to say about Scottish actor Brian Cox's performance as Hannibal). While it might be fair to describe Manhunter as virtual audiovisual porn for hopelessly 1980s nostalgic aesthetes, it is also one highly memorable movie that, arguably quite unlike the arguably contrived, cold, and calculated The Silence of the Lambs, rewards the viewer on subsequent viewings. In short, Manhunter is, contrary to bien pensant film dorks and lamestream film critics alike, the most idiosyncratic and masterful of the ‘Hannibal Lecter’ (or, in this case, Hannibal Lecktor) films and it is also, somewhat ironically, the least faithful to its source novel (not surprisingly, Hannibal Rising (2007) is the only film that Harris penned the screenplay for and it is indubitably the worst film in the uniquely uneven franchise), not to mention the fact that it does not even feature Sir Philip Anthony Hopkins (who seemed to want to blot out fellow Brit Brian Cox’s Hannibal from cinema history when he cynically opted to appear in zio-hack Brett Ratner’s patently pointless 2002 ‘remake’ Red Dragon). 



 

I have to confess that is was probably Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and its inclusion of songs like “Alone” by Colin Newman and “Goodbye Horses” by Q Lazzarus (which was later covered in a Buffalo Bill-esque fashion by the Tollund Men) that sparked my initial interest in goth, deathrock, and darkwave music. and thus I see it as a sort of early formative film in my life as a cinephiliac aesthete but I also simply cannot deny that Manhunter—a film with its own similarly crucial and potent (yet sometimes admittedly goofy) soundtrack—is, for me, the stronger, more immaculate, and idiosyncratically aesthetically satisfying film in almost every single way. Also, Mann’s movie does not have the unintentionally campy cartoon antics of Anthony Hopkins to throw one out of the film. Indeed, while he might not be much more than a creepy cipher, I have to confess that I am more of a Buffalo Bill bro than a Lecter lover (Of course, the same could be more or less said for Cox’s Lecktor and Francis ‘The Tooth Fairy’ Dollarhyde, though Cox never becomes cartoonish). Whereas Demme’s film is a slick adaptation of Harris’ novel that features just enough artistic flourishes and ‘pop pathos’ to make it memorable and satisfying enough to be a highly re-watchable classic, Manhunter is a film that is, not unlike like Stanley Kubrick’s horror classic The Shining (1980), an exemplary example of an auteur totally transcending the source material and creating something great in spite of its obscenely overrated source writer. In short, Manhunter feels like a stand-alone film and certainly not the forgotten first film of an increasingly sociopathic and sleazy film-cum-TV franchise that, at least in thematic and aesthetic terms, seems rather ironically committed to spiritual cannibalism. Still fresh after forty years (whereas Rat(ner)’s remake is hopelessly and painfully typical of the 2000s in every single way, including its absurd casting of perennially hokey human dildo Ed Norton as Will Graham), Mann’s movie might as well be the creation of an extraterrestrial entity as it has a look and feel the screams uncanny utopia despite technically diving deep into dark hearts and demented delirium. Indeed, somehow Manhunter manages to put scenic oceanic sunsets on the same aesthetic, and in turn, emotional, plane as serial killer bachelor pads without seeming too schlocky or silly and this is exactly one of the reasons the film is so great. 

While certainly a rare film where the style almost creates the substance, Manhunter still has an interesting storyline that touches on some aberrantly compelling themes.  Indeed, the story of an (ex)FBI profiler named Will Graham (William Petersen) who reluctantly gets back in the game to catch a super sick family-slaughtering serial killer simply known as the ‘The Tooth Fairy’ (Tom Noonan) and, even more reluctantly, seeks the professional criminal profiling advice of another serial killer by the name of Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox) who was responsible for causing him to abscond to a heavenly Florida beach from his prestigious G-man position due to a mental breakdown caused by a near deadly altercation while apprehending said homicidal Herr Döktor, the film largely successfully manages to juggle both the internal struggles of the protagonist and the killer he is trying to catch whilst wowing the viewer with an aesthetic package that is no less meticulous than a Kubrick flick.  As the film's title, which undoubtedly has a dual meaning referencing both protagonist Graham and the Tooth Fairy, certainly indicates, Manhunter is also a film about the soul-draining psychological struggle of the hunt, albeit in a somewhat less obvious way than say the 1932 pre-Code classic The Most Dangerous Game (notably surprisingly, David Fincher would make reference to the film in his uneven Zodiac (2007)).  Notably, the film also confirms Georges Bataille's words, “Sacrifice though, while like war a suspension of the commandment not to kill, is the religious act above all others,” albeit it a somewhat sick ironical way where the serial killer's preternatural self-stylized religious views result in pretty much the opposite of his intent.  While featuring content that is less sexually subversive (for example, the Tooth Fairy is a virtual necrophile in the book and a “secretor” that, among other things, wedges a piece of glass in a female victim's labia) and an ending that is certainly happier than its source novel, Mann's movie is only superficially normie-friendly, hence its somewhat fitting relegation to the cult realm.


 

Due to SE7EN and various numerous The Silence of the Lambs-inspired virtual crappy carbon-copy clones and cons like Hebraic hack Jon Amiel’s feministic filmic feces Copycat (1995) and Dominic Sena's conspicously anti-Southern/anti-white trash-masquerading-as-art Kalifornia (1993), the serial killer (sub)genre has largely becomes an all-around artistically bankrupt trend and the singular stylistic majesty of a film like Manhunter in comparison to such frivolous filth really underscores that (a great example of the nadir of the (sub)genre is the Gary Busey vehicle Rough Draft (1998) aka Diary of a Serial Killer). Indeed, I recently watched The Golden Glove (2019) aka Der Goldene Handschuh—a film based on the excremental escapades of Hamburg-based dipsomaniacal serial-whore-killer Fritz Honka—and it is not simply because of its tiresome Turkmite auteur Fatih Akin’s glaringly grotesque anti-kraut angle that the film is so painfully insufferable (after all, Iranian auteur Sohrab Shaheed Salles’ epic morbid whorehouse (anti)melodrama Utopia (1983) is hardly Teutonophile-friendly yet it is a virtual unsung masterpiece of sorts). While The Golden Glove is surely a sick and repulsive film that does not inspire one’s faith in humanity, it is also a rather redundant piece of cinematic rehash that owes absolutely everything to German Lustmord cinema history of the past ranging from Fritz Lang’s M (1931) to Robert Siodmak’s The Devil Strikes at Night (1957) aka Nachts wenn der Teufel kam to Ulli Lommel’s The Tenderness of Wolves (1973) aka Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe to Jörg Buttgereit’s Schramm (1993). Likewise, Austrian one-time auteur Gerald Kargl’s Angst (1983)—a film that, among other things, heavily informed Argentinean-French auteur Gaspar Noé’s entire style and practically single-handedly reinvented the serial killer (sub)genre (though few people noticed aside from Noé and Buttgereit)—makes The Golden Glove seem like primitive child’s play by comparison in terms of its seemingly immaculate combination of enterprising technique and viscerally grotesque subject matter, but I digress. Of course, the serial killer subject matter of Manhunter almost feels secondary, if not irrelevant, as the film is an exercise in pure unmitigated style, which becomes apparent when one watches director Mann's previous different genre works like Thief and The Keep



 

While The Silence of the Lambs is noted for being a crucial influence on The X-Files (1993–2018), especially before the show turned into a bad (and oftentimes unintentional) joke (incidentally, Tom ‘The Tooth Fairy’ Noonan would also appear as a serial killer in the great fourth season The X-Files episode ‘Paper Hearts,’ albeit of the all the more putrid pederastic sort), few seem to recognize the imperative aesthetic and thematic influence that Manhunter had on the show’s creator Chris Carter’s following series MillenniuM (1996–1999). Described by some as a sort of ‘The Thinking Man’s The X-Files,’ the show is decidedly darker and more esoteric than Carter’s hit extraterrestrial-centered excursion and, not unlike Manhunter, centers on a moody and broody (ex)FBI agent that has a special talent for entering the oftentimes highly hermetic minds of serial killers, though it comes at the hefty metaphysically-draining price of destroying both his mental health and family life (indeed, as Harris describes the character of Will Graham in his novel, “He viewed his own mentality as grotesque but useful, like a chair made of antlers.”). Of course, both Manhunter and William Friedkin’s similarly aesthetically potent and idiosyncratic To Live and Die in L.A. (1985) would lead actor William Petersen to a lifelong career as a fictional cop, most notably (but unfortunately) the almost lethally lame CBS drama series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000–2015). While it is a damn shame that Petersen later opted for such light and lame roles in shit shows that are made to further pacify braindead boomers, he apparently had his reasons, or as he once claimed in regard to symbolically committing character hara-kiri, “After MANHUNTER, I had to actually kill off the character. I cut off most of my hair and dyed it blond. I changed my whole look just to get rid of him.”  Aside from television, Manhunter apparently had some influence in the English neofolk scene as Tony Wakeford's main musical outfit Sol Invictius (in collaboration with Evil Twin) sampled dialogue from Brian Cox's Hannibal Lecktor for the epic 15-minute song “A Palace Of Worms.”


 

Not unlike his fellow working-classic kosher Chicagoan William Friedkin, Mann stands out among the stereotypical Hebraic Hollywood filmmaker in terms of his complete and utter lack of bullshit, sharp yet fair cynicism, and unwavering commitment to certain streetwise truths. For example, Mann’s underrated NBC series Crime Story (1986-1988)—a dark and gritty show that depicts a virtual anti-romance between an destructively obsessive wop cop and his guido gangster ‘other-half’—depicts, among other things, Judaic leftist lawyers, Hebraic hoods and gangsters (notably, Ted ‘Buffalo Bill’ Levine even portrays a proudly koserh thug that literally moonlights as a lounge singer) and the auteur-cum-producer even had the gall to allow Abel Ferrara to direct the show’s feature-length pilot episode. In Manhunter, Mann also cleverly cast Stephen Lang as degenerate tabloid journalist ‘Freddy Lounds’ in a pitch perfect performance worthy of Der Stürmer that totally blows away Philip Seymour Hoffman’s lazy lame duck performance as the same character in rat-boy Ratner’s patently pointless ‘remake’ Red Dragon. Needless to say, it is no small surprise as to why Manhunter received its greatest initial success in Europa where hubristic phoniness is more frowned upon and where the film was described by some as a masterpiece and favorably compared to Dostoevsky at a time when mindless and/or childish big budget blockbusters were vogue and escapism was the norm.



 Speaking of Miami Vice, the hit NBC show touched on the theme of the thin line between art and criminality with its excellent fourth season episode ‘Death and the Lady’ where a pretentious art-porn auteur named Milton Glantz virtually anticipates Teutonic artsploitation auteur Marian Dora by making an artsy fartsy pornographic snuff film. Of course, Manhunter’s Francis ‘The Tooth Fairy’ Dollarhyde is an aberrant avant-garde artist of sorts that, as inspired by his warped quasi-spiritual metapolitical influence from William Blake—a genius that Camille Paglia once somewhat rightly described, especially in the context of the film, as, “...the British Sade, as Emily Dickinson is the American Sade”—leaves behind ambitious artistic creations in the form of his grisly crime scenes (notably, Scottish auteur Donald Cammell touched on similar themes in a more overt way with his underrated third and ultimately penultimate film White of the Eye (1987)). Undoubtedly, what makes Manhunter different from all the other Hannibal Lec(k)tor films is that it makes art out of the socially aberrant phenomenon of Lustmord while recognizing the (failed) transcendental potential of Lustmord. Indeed, while the Tooth Fairy believes that, as Hannibal explains, “if one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is,” he is left dead in the end lying on his back with worthless ‘wings’ of blood instead of achieving the beauteously brutal Blakeian Red Dragon of his deep dark dreams. As Mann himself explained himself in regard to the sort of person that degenerates into a serial killer, “…when people are not human anymore, they become bits… of matter.” Had the Tooth Fairy not degenerated into a virtual black void of a man that finds it hard to even maintain a successful romantic relationship with an overly eager blind chick that is completely willing to overlook his social retardation, he might he became an artist worthy of making something in the vein of a great cinematic work like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960)—a film that features a filmmaker ‘antihero’ of sorts that, not unlike Dollarhyde, enjoys shooting footage of his victims—instead of wasting his life on senselessly wasting other people.  In fact, I would not be surprised if Mann's films—most of which feature some sorts of criminal antihero—were the direct result of some pathological therapeutic need to express some criminal tendency.  Also, I am pretty sure that there are tons of morons out there that consider films like Thief, Manhunter, L.A. Takedown (1989), Heat (1995), Collateral (2004), and Public Enemies (2009) to be more obscene than actual criminal acts.

 

As has been more than obviously alluded to throughout this review, the serial killer film has become a mostly banal ghetto genre that provides the mindless masses with an appeal to their more base instincts while simultaneously conveniently offering them an alibi for their darkest desires via disgustingly disingenuous pseudo-moralistic sermonizing, hence the importance of a film like Kargl’s Angst where, quite unlike Fincher’s SE7EN—a film that depicts its ‘John Doe’ character portrayed by Kevin Spacey as having virtual godlike powers in terms of keen intelligent and ascetic devotion—the killer is revealed to be not much more sophisticated than a drooling retard in terms of his thoughts and social skills. Undoubtedly, the genius of Manhunter is its equal distribution of aesthetic refinement, entertainment value, and moral integrity as a rather revolutionary serial killer flick that transcends the genre ghetto while somehow simultaneously paying tribute to it. In that sense, Mann’s movie anticipates the first season of True Detective (2014), though it provides you with a completely different aesthetic experience as a film that, despite its dark and dejecting true crime-inspired subject matter, is an absolute narcotizing joy in terms of sheer audiovisual prowess. Indeed, in that sense, Francis Dollarhyde might as well be Mann speaking to the filmgoer in regard to Manhunter when he defiantly declares: “It is in your nature to do one thing correctly: Tremble.”  

Indeed, while that might sound like it is plagued with puffery, I dare anyone else to name another film where the filmmaker somehow gets away with depicting a superlatively sexually dysfunctional and atypically autistic creep as the sort of Beau Brummell of serial killers.  Additionally, Mann's movie certainly passes Paglia's test in terms of genre as demonstrated by her words, “Gothic horror must be moderated by Apollonian discipline, or it turns into gross buffoonery.  The run-of-the-mill horror film is anti-aesthetic and anti-idealizing.  Its theme is sparagmos, the form-pulverizing energies of Dionysus.  Horror films unleash the forces repressed by Christianity—evil and the barbarism of nature.  Horror films are rituals of pagan worship.”  Of course, Manhunter is both an expression and cautionary tale about such expressions of atavistic pagan worship where a damaged serial killer dudes self-destructive under the weight of his own increasing Dionysian drunkenness.  Admittedly, Mann's movie is similar to most serial killer films (aside from, say, Zodiac) in the sense that it demonstrates that is only a matter of time before a serial killer fucks up.  Unfortunately, the same can also be said of Mann's post-Heat career.  After all, Manhunter may seem like a rather bleak film for the 1980s as an era that personified feel-good escapism and pie-in-the-sky utopias, but it seems rather uplifting compared to something like his Miami Vice (2006) movie reboot and his dreary Dillinger Gang flick Public Enemies.  Undoubtedly, Mann's serial killer film is pure 1980s in the best sort of way as the auteur arguably exemplified the zeitgeist more than any other American filmmaker, so it almost seems like an artistic sin that he would work past the 1990s, let alone well into the 2010s, hence the steady drastic decline of his work.

 

 

-Ty E

Dec 3, 2020

I Walked with a Zombie


As the largely pathetically plastic and aesthetically and artistically prosaic history of Hollywood—a virtual dream factory designed for dullards and dictated over by demons and devils—surely demonstrates, the producer-as-auteur is a most putrid prospect that, not surprisingly, reached its peak long ago during the first year of the Second World War with such preposterously plush proto-blockbusters as Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Needless to say, it is somewhat shocking yet somehow strangely fitting that during WWII a deracinated Judaic producer would be responsible for creating some of the greatest and most pleasantly poetic horror films of all-time. Influencing everything from Curtis Harrington’s delightful debut feature Night Tide (1961) to Roger Corman’s Poe Cycle (1960-1964) to Mike Nichols’ sole unexpected horror effort Wolf (1994), Val Lewton—the introverted nephew of femme fatale Alla Nazimova who was behind the surprisingly artsy fartsy Oscar Wilde adaptation Salomé (1923)—never directed a single feature but to deny him the status of ‘auteur’ would be insulting to a man that produced films that were certainly weirder and more poetical than anything ever directed by James Whale. Indeed, as a producer at RKO Pictures during the 1940s, Lewton actually managed to rival the Teutonic masters of German Expressionism with a cycle of boldly beauteous and hypnotically haunting horror movies that, despite technically being low-budget quickies, brought artistic credibility to a genre that very few took/take seriously. While most of Lewton’s horror films have something to offer, I can state without even the slightest degree of hesitation that I Walked with a Zombie (1943) is easily my favorite of these flavorsome fright flicks. Directed by Jacques Tourneur who helmed the greatest (and earliest) of the Lewton films, including Cat People (1942) and The Leopard Man (1943), and who would also direct the great British horror flick Night of the Demon (1957), Lewton’s pre-Romero zombie flick is probably the single greatest artistic contribution to the flesheater genre and it does not even feature a single instance of flesh-eating. In short, I Walked with a Zombie makes for a great case that George A. Romero may have had a disastrous influence on zombie cinema, but of course that would be missing the point as the film is a piece of cinematic poetry that simply transcends any sort of genre ghetto and is imbued with a sort of warm melancholy and the uniquely uncanny that, not unlike the undead negroes in the film, leaves one in a trance. 
 
 
While it might just be a mere coincidence, it seems that the most poetic works of horror cinema do not extend much past the 60-minute mark as demonstrated by Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), and Jörg Buttgereit’s Schramm (1993), among various other examples. Of course, I Walked with a Zombie, not unlike Lewton’s other RKO horror films, is no different as a 69-minute feature with a seemingly immaculate flow and pace that begs for frequent re-watchings. In fact, the first time I watched the film, I decided to immediately re-watch it and I felt no less effortlessly enraptured during this second viewing, which is not something I can say about many films, including many of my favorite ones. Clearly made before the zombie film became a ghettoized gallery of the unimaginatively gory and grotesque, the film—unquestionably the greatest collaboration between dual auteurs Lewton and Tourneur—demonstrates that sometimes taking narrative influence from a classic Charlotte Brontë Bildungsroman like Jane Eyre: An Autobiography (1847) can do a horror film good as a hallucinatory cinematic work that takes an almost somnambulistic approach to the art of storytelling. Indeed, a quite literally titled flick less-than-loosely based on the story of the same name featured in American Weekly magazine by roving journalist Inez Wallace, it begins in a flashback form and even disseminates narrative bits in the form of a goofy negro calypso singer who seems almost literally possessed with a need to spread the anti-gospel of a romantically accursed white plantation family. A film that is somewhat in the racially-charged tradition of H.P. Lovecraft in terms of depicting the forsaken status of white European colonial types that made the mistake of colonizing exotic lands and mixing with non-Europeans, the film also wallows in the hopelessly hoodooed status of Faustian man and his sorry state in the postcolonial world. Needless to say, I Walked with a Zombie makes Wes Craven’s particularly plodding The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) seem like an artless exercise in zany xenophilia by comparison. Additionally, even the watchable second season The X-Files episode “Fresh Bones”—a racially confused tribute to the dubious horrors of Haitian Vodou—seems like a feckless fantasy compared to the pure preternatural poetry of Lewton’s classic flick. Admittedly, the film also imbues the viewer with a sense that it makes no sense to fiddle with the old dark things of old dark peoples lest one suffer an indelible sort of spiritual miscegenation. 
 
Although himself a mischling with tiresomely turgid prose, film scholar Chris Fujiwara makes a great point about the film in his text The Cinema of Nightfall: Jacques Tourneur (1998) when he argues that, “To try to synopsize I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is a peculiarly ridiculous task, since the film, more systematically than any other Tourneur film, abolishes narrative verisimilitude,” yet Fujiwara then curiously proceeds to provide a synopsis, but I digress. While Fujiwara tends to puke-out prosaic puffery as is especially apparent in his obscenely banal Otto Preminger biography The World and Its Double (2008), he completely nails it when he states, “One of Tourneur’s most beautiful films, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is a sustained exercise in uncompromising ambiguity. Perfecting the formula that Lewton and Tourneur had developed in CAT PEOPLE, the film carries its predecessor’s elliptical, oblique narrative procedures to astonishing extremes. The dialogue is almost nothing but a commentary on past events, obsessively revisiting itself, finally giving up the struggle to explain and surrendering to a mute acceptance of the inexplicable. We watch the slow, atmospheric, lovingly detailed scenes with delight and fascination, realizing at the end that we have seen nothing but the traces of a conflict decided in advance.” 
 
 
I have to confess that virtually every single nurse that I have ever personally known was a cold cunt and it comes as no surprise to me that an inordinately large number of female serial killers were members of the profession, but it would be a lie to say that I Walked with a Zombie lead Betsy Connell (Frances Dee)—a white Canadian chick that immediately lets the viewer know via voiceover that she once “walked with a zombie”—is unlikable, though one certainly sometimes questions her borderline cuckquean-like behavior. Although a Canadian nurse, Betsy somehow finds herself relocating to the Caribbean island of Saint Sebastian where she is hired by the severely cynical Paul Holland (Tom Conway)—a cultivated man that seems to hate everyone and everything, especially in regard to his seemingly accursed family and their dubious legacy—to take care of his wife Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) who may or may not be a zombie. While Jessica’s status as a member of the living dead is somewhat questionable, her past life as a wanton whore is unquestionable as she was responsible for bringing misery to Paul’s family by starting a lurid extramarital love affair with his hunky half-brother Wesley Rand (James Ellison) who clearly has stronger feelings for the tragic voodoo floozy. Needless to say, Nurse Betsy, who eventually develops curious romantic feelings for Paul, finds herself getting stuck in the middle of the fucked family affair and even gets so desperate in her quest to cure Jessica that she takes her to a voodoo temple called a ‘Houmfort’ with the help of a titular undead colored gentleman named Carrefour (Darby Jones) with big bulging eyes that puts maestro Mantan Moreland to shame in terms of the unnervingly grotesque and racially caricaturely unfortunate. Naturally, Betsy is somewhat shocked when she discovers that Paul and Wesley’s mother Mrs. Rand (who is strangely portrayed by Vincent Price’s wife Edith Barrett in old fart makeup) is not only involved in the voodoo scene, but she also takes credit for turning Jessica into a zombie. Of course, it is hard to hate Mrs. Rand as Jessica is the hot twat harpy that ripped her family apart. While Mrs. Rand only makes her curious confession after a local commissioner opts to launch an official investigation into the living dead dame’s (ostensible?) illness, her son Wesley decisively puts an end to all the madness by killing Jessica—with or without the help of less than divine intervention—and then drowning himself in a darkly dreamy scenario that rather conveniently takes place at very same time a voodoo ritual involving an effigy of Jessica is being carried out by the local voudon negroes. While I Walked with a Zombie does not end on a happy note as potential lovebirds Betsy and Paul do not even start a romance (though such a scenario was rightly excised from the original script), it could not have ended any other way as a film that wallows in the racially apocalyptic legacy of colonialism and, in turn, (proto)multiculturalism. In short, Lovecraft wept. 
 
 
Undoubtedly Lewton’s greatest director, Tourneur apparently also shared his collaborator’s ‘progressive’ outlook when it came to race as is so delicately depicted not only in I Walked with a Zombie, but also his later films. Indeed, as Tourneur once stated in an interview with Positif in regard to his then-atypical affection for Afro-Americans, “I’ve always refused to caricature blacks. I’ve never or almost never showed them as domestics. I’ve always tried to give them a profession, to have them speak normally without drawing any comic effect. Watch in OUT OF THE PAST the scene in the nightclub where there are only black people, look at the way they’re dressed and filmed, the elegance of the young woman in responding to Mitchum. Several times I’ve been accused of being a ‘n*gger lover’ and for long months I was out of the studios for that reason. It was a sort of gray list.” Undoubtedly, many of the colored characters in Lewton’s/Tourneur’s zombie flick have a sort of rare ‘tragic nobility’ that is thankfully not betrayed by the sort of rabid self-righteous ressentiment and racial hubris that is typical of ostensibly progressive modern-day Hollywood films, especially the sort of black bourgeois pseudo-art horror of Jordan Peele (who has rightly been described as the great Afro-American film critic Armond White as a “race hustler” and “charlatan”). Additionally, whether intentional or not, I Walked with a Zombie manages to make a mockery of spiritually castrated white progressive types, namely in a scene where the character Paul—the wealthy yet accursed descendant of slave traders—declares when describing a statue of Saint Sebastian named Ti-Misery that, “it was once the figurehead of a slave-ship. That’s where our people came from.” Indeed, like the stereotype of the sort of nihilistic self-destructive aristocrat described in Vilfredo Pareto’s classic text The Rise and Fall of Elites: Application of Theoretical Sociology, degenerate rich boy Paul absurdly identifies with people of a completely different race and class over his own kin, but such is the forsaken fate of a fucked fellow from a unfortunate family that made the rather shortsighted mistake of getting rich off of slavery. Needless to say, Paul’s curse is also now that of the entire modern Occidental world. 
 
 
Notably, in his worthwhile text Val Lewton: the Reality of Terror (1972), Joel E. Siegel, who regards I Walked with a Zombie as the first of Lewton’s two true masterpieces (the other being the delightfully deathly dark The Seventh Victim (1943) directed by Mark Robson) and a work somewhat rightly compared to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) in terms of its technique and mosaic-like structure, soundly argues, “Lewton’s strongest abilities are, as [James] Agee observed, poetic and cinematic and not literary or romantic. A very free adaptation of JANE EYRE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is particularly poetic in its equivocal, often inexplicable, interrelationships between characters […] At no time in the film, even at its conclusion, do we have any idea of strong, single motivations determining the action and characters. Lewton cleverly sets up a series of perplexing relationships; the mystery of his complexly driven human characters leads us outward, gradually to accept the film’s supernatural elements without disbelief. The film’s central image, an emblematic crystallization of all this ambiguity, is the figurehead of St Sebastian which came to the island on a slave ship and now stands in the Holland garden. St Sebastian, who exists at the meeting point of paganism and Christianity, is a fit deity for the film, a mixture of the elemental and the tamed, the fleshly and the divine. The figurehead, which at times serves as a quick transition between scenes, is an emblem of the blending of love and hatred, beauty and terror, reason and superstition, at the heart of this complex, remarkable film.” Indeed, aside from being a rare example of a film that does not utilize Saint Sebastian in a hokey homoerotic way à la Paul Schrader’s dreadful Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist (2005), I Walked with a Zombie is a rare horror films that manages to be just as effortlessly enigmatic as it is archetypically perennial. 
 
 
Apparently, Val Lewton’s own loving wife said in regard to the film that is quite arguably her husband’s magnum opus, “I would never go to see a movie called I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE unless somebody dragged me there.” Rather fittingly, the film even opens with the heroine Betsy Connell mocking the title in a tongue-in-cheek fashion, but unfortunately the title at least temporarily acted as a curse of sorts on the ill-fated-filled film, or as Siegel explained, “It is perhaps characteristic of Lewton’s career that this film, one of the rare pieces of pure visual poetry ever to come out of Hollywood, was seen by hardly anybody but the bloodthirsty chiller fans who frequented theaters like the Rialto in New York. Later, through the efforts of critics like James Agee and Manny Farber, readers of magazines like THE NATION and THE NEW REPUBLIC were altered to the very special quality of Lewton’s productions.” Personally, I am still pissed off at myself for not watching the film over a decade ago as I already regard it as easily in my own personal ‘top ten films of all-time’ despite only first seeing it this year. Indeed, while I now generally regard most of the zombie (sub)genre as being about as appetizing as undead excreta, I Walked with a Zombie is a potent reminder as to why I love cinema and spend so much time devouring cinema despite being routinely disappointed by a good portion of it. While I will always have a softspot for fine flesh-eating filmic feces like Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 (1979) aka Zombie, Lewton’s masterpiece is the only zombie film that I can think of that manages to be a virtual perfect poetic meditation on Eros and Thanatos, among other things. Needless to say, the film will probably not exactly excite the sort of genre sociopath that finds themselves effortlessly enraptured by the sight of brutal deaths and cheap sleazy sex. Likewise, the film fails to fulfill any sort of philistine fantasy about frolicsome flesheaters as the (un)dead seem truly (un)dead and hardly the compatriots of rancid Romero retards. 
 
 
Rather admittedly, I used to feel that filmic voodoo zombies were the height of banality when I was much younger due to my childish reverence for Romero and sustained boredom while watching such would-be-classic as White Zombie and Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow, but I Walked with a Zombie has single-handedly shown me the error of my ways. In fact, as far as I am concerned, it is the only zombie film I really need, though I do not plan to completely abandon the horror (sub)genre despite the appearance of such lifeless flicks as Jim Jarmusch’s prosaically pretentious pomo zombie-comedy The Dead Don't Die (2019) where the near-elderly hipster auteur demonstrates with a dumbfounding degree of detachment his lackluster love of Romero flicks and basic bitch genre trivia. Not surprisingly, I Walked with a Zombie has been remade at least twice and, even less surprisingly, neither of these films are quite as good as the original. The first, Casa de Lava (1994) aka Down to Earth directed by Portuguese Pedro Costa, is a virtual postcolonial Tondichtung sans supernatural horror where the zombies are replaced by a comatose Cape Verdean ‘migrant worker’ who is brought back to his decaying and racially (post)apocalyptic volcanic homeland by an attractive young white nurse that tries in vain to live like the natives (and gets fucked by them in process). Unfortunately, the second sequel Tales from the Crypt Presents: Ritual (2002)—a gleefully degenerate and equally dumb exercise in schlocky CGI special effects and shockingly stupid lowbrow racial fetishism directed by some Israeli hack and co-produced by genre directors Richard Donner and Walter Hill that is surely not worthy of the name of the hit HBO horror anthology television series that was quite cynically tacked onto it—is a total insult to the legacy of Lewton’s masterpiece.  While it is surely no surprise that a stupid and sleazy remake was made with kosher cash as it is a virtual tradition of the horror genre, the fact that a perplexing European arthouse auteur like Pedro Costa would seek to rework I Walked with a Zombie is certainly strong evidence of the film's perennial artistic potency and integrity.
 
 
Although I Walked with a Zombie is unequivocally the best voodoo zombie flick ever made, it was actually not the first. Indeed, aside from the languid yet watchable Lugosi vehicle White Zombie—a pre-Code independent film based on a story by writer, occultist, and purported cannibal William Seabrook—having the distinction of being the first feature-length zombie film, it was followed up by various rather racially-insensitive low-budget voodoo horror flicks, including the zombie-free Fay Wray vehicle Black Moon (1934) directed by Roy William Neill and Ouanga (1936) aka Love Wanga aka Drums of the Jungle directed by George Terwilliger (who also penned the somewhat similarly themed ‘race film’ The Devil's Daughter (1939) directed by Arthur H. Leonard). While naturally also zombie-free due to being a documentary, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1954/1993) directed by experimental filmmaker Maya Deren makes for a nice double feature with I Walked with a Zombie. Although not altogether flattering in its depiction of Haitian vodou, accursed auteur Richard Stanley’s doc The White Darkness (2002) does a good job of demystifying both the literal and figurative darkness of the sort of folk culture/religion that is depicted in I Walked with a Zombie. Of course, a love of Lewton’s film does not require an interest in voodoo, zombies, or even horror films. Indeed, just as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) does not require one to sympathize with petty criminals, Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1969) does not require one to even be familiar with t8th-century Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, and Lucifer Rising (1971) does not require selling one’s soul to charming charlatan Aleister Crowley, I Walked with a Zombie does not demand one even appreciate horror or zombie films as a work of singular cinematic art that totally transcends its subject matter to provide the viewer with a virtual aesthetic high that maintains its potency on subsequent viewings. In short, the greatest film with a stupid name ever made and a cinematic work that even rivals Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) in terms of the greatest film ever produced by RKO Pictures. In fact, sorry Orson, but I have seen I Walked with a Zombie more times in one month than I have watched Welles’ masterpiece in my entire life and I do not feel the least bit ashamed of that fact.  Undoubtedly, unless Gaspar Noé gets the great gall to direct a film inspired by Lothrop Stoddard's classic text The French Revolution in San Domingo (1914), I doubt we will ever see a Caribbean-themed horror that is even vaguely as immaculately idiosyncratic as Lewton's doubly dark masterpiece.  Likewise, I doubt we will ever see a new Hollywood filmmaker that even approaches Lewton in terms of artistic integrity and great sensitivity.  A rare enigma of a film producer that cared more about his art than money and made b-movies that were inspired by artists ranging from William Hogarth to Arnold Böcklin, Lewton also broke racial stereotypes and revealed a certain deep eternal darkness in Faustian man that is so elegantly expressed in I Walked with a Zombie.  Needless to say, Faustian is more or less a member of the undead nowadays.
 
 
 
-Ty E

Jul 27, 2020

The Cremator




Mainly due to its curious inclusion of Austrian actor Paulus Manker portraying the great Viennese Jewish philosopher Otto Weininger—a character he would play on stage and ultimately immortalize by directing and starring in the rarely-seen masterpiece Weiningers Nacht (1990) aka Weininger's Last Night—I recently made the mistake of watching the fiercely flaccid pseudo-metaphysical feminist flick My 20th Century (1989) aka Az én XX. Századom directed by Ildikó Enyedi and felt the need to cleanse my soul with another black-and-white art film from one of the other strangely dejecting (mostly) Slavic areas that used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While the last thing I want to see is another holocaust film, I actually decided on the rather grim Czechoslovak New Wave classic The Cremator (1969) aka Spalovač mrtvol directed by Slovak semite Juraj Herz (Morgiana, Habermann) as it is a rare piece of singular tragicomedic shoah cinema that actually manages to be both humorous and aesthetically pleasing in a strangely aberrant-garde sort of fashion. In fact, despite technically being a holocaust film as directed by an authentic Hebraic holocaust survivor, the film is so innately idiosyncratic, abrasively absurd, and surreally schizophrenic that I never felt that I was watching a film that would be endorsed by the ADL or the sort of especially naive idiot that sincerely believes that Schindler’s List (1993) is a serious film about the perils of prejudice and heights of human suffering (or whatever). 

Clearly owing a hefty spiritual and aesthetic debt to German Expressionism and some of the more grotesque Teutonic Dada artists like Otto Dix, the film notably stars the popular Czech star Rudolf Hrušínský—an actor that, quite humorously but not surprisingly, was previously best known for lovable comedic roles—who resembles a sort of all-the-more-bulging-eyed (but hardly Hebraic) Peter Lorre. Since Lorre became a symbol for Judaic criminality and depravity due to his iconic performance in mischling master Fritz Lang’s serial killer masterpiece M (1931), which was infamously referenced in Nazi mischling filmmaker's agitprop flick Der Ewige Jude (1940) aka The Eternal Jew, it is certainly strangely fitting that the actor’s Czech doppelganger portrays a naughty Nazi cremator of sorts who murders his part-Jewish family members as it—whether intentional or not—surely symbolizes both the triumph of Judea and the death of the Occident, for such a film would have been completely unthinkable only 25 years before during the Third Reich era. Of course, the film is, quite thankfully, just as anti-commie as it is anti-nazi as the setting is at least partly symbolic of the sort of artistically stifling and all-oppressive Soviet totalitarianism that would dominate shortly after the cinematic work was created as a result of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia (aka ‘Operation Danube’) that effectively destroyed the Czechoslovak New Wave. In fact, despite being selected as the Czechoslovakian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 42nd Academy Awards, the film was banned soon after it was released and would be completely hidden from the world until the collapse of the communist system in Czechoslovakia in 1989. And, indeed, The Cremator certainly feels like the sort of singularly subversive film that had been imprisoned in a vault for decades as it manages to be merrily macabre and misanthropic in the sort of audacious alienating fashion that would offend individuals of all political stripes, especially completely humorless authoritarian bureaucrat types that somehow get a hard-on from soulless schlock like socialist realism. 



 While I would be a liar if I tried to pass myself off as a Czechoslovak New Wave expert of sorts, I think I am familiar enough with the movement to say that, during its all-too-brief existence, it unequivocally produced some of the most preternaturally dark, perturbing, and artistically enterprising films in all of cinema history. Indeed, while kosher Czech filmmaker Miloš Forman is unfortunately the best known filmmaker associated with the movement since he would later go on to direct hit Hollywood films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984), his classic Czech New Wave flicks like Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen's Ball (1967) are pretty softcore and less than aesthetically ambitious when compared to the anti-kraut celluloid pagan blood orgy that is František Vláčil’s Marketa Lazarová (1967) or the kaleidoscopic coming-of-age vampirism of Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970). Fans of degenerate ‘food play’ bullshit like wet and messy fetishism, feederism, and nyotaimori can also rejoice in Czech auteuress Věra Chytilová’s classic psychedelic psychodrama Daisies (1966) where a debauched dumb dame duo gets all down and dirty with dick-shaped devourables and cutesy cunt chaos, among other things. With her all-the-more-avant-garde Adam and Eve reworking Fruit of Paradise (1970), Chytilová once again demonstrated a singular talent for finding the most organically beauteous color schemes in the darkness of men’s souls.  Of course, considering the strange Teutophobia of Vláčil’s films like Marketa Lazarová and The Valley of the Bees (1967), the filmmakers of the Czech New Wave were naturally also interested in the historical subject of the Big H.

Long before the holocaust became a jadedly Judeocentric cinema subject of the cliché-ridden and unwittingly cynical sort, Czech enfant terrible Jan Němec bombarded the world with his exceedingly esoteric and exquisitely elliptical debut feature Diamonds of the Night (1964), which makes Schindler’s List seem like a retarded Richard Donner action movie by comparison in terms of artistic and emotional complexity. And, to go back to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, it is like a vampire flick as directed by the lovechild Sergei Parajanov and a Völkisch auteur à la Ewiger Wald (1936), albeit shamelessly surreally Slavonic. As for The Cremator—undoubtedly Juraj Herz’s greatest film and a cinematic work that the director himself has described as having total artistic control of—it is arguably the greatest, most idiosyncratically immaculate, and unforgettable film associated with the Czech New Wave and somehow it rather abstractly, aberrantly, and, arguably, aloofly, meditates on the shoah.  Thankfully, the film also has a masterful musical score by Czech maestro Zdeněk Liška who of course created music for great films by great directors like Jan Švankmajer, František Vláčil, and Věra Chytilová, among countless others.



 The Cremator was not the first hit Czech holocaust film of its era as director Juraj Herz, who was self-taught, actually worked as a second-unit director on two shoah cinematic showcases, including Zbyněk Brynych’s Transport from Paradise (1962) and Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’ Academy Award-winning The Shop on Main Street (1965)—a film that seems pretty tame and banal by today's sensational shoah standards—before going solo with the non-shoah short The Junk Shop (1965). Like Kadár and quite unlike Spielberg, Herz was also actually a holocaust survivor that spent his childhood in Ravensbrück concentration camp and, according to film programmer Irena Kovarova, he apparently developed certain perverse interests in regard to sex and death as a result of what he personally witnessed there (or as she so calmly states in a featurette included with The Criterion Collection blu-ray release of The Cremator, “he came from the camps knowing way too much about sex and way too much about death”), which is quite apparent in his film as it is a stylishly sleazy cinematic work that seems to say more about its curious creator than the nasty Nazi numbskulls it so devilishly depicts. Of course, belated NYC cineaste Amos Vogel—a Vienna-born Jew with certain obvious ethnic/political biases—tries to spin it a different way in his classic text Film as a Subversive Art (1974) where he argues that is, “A provocative attempt to penetrate the origins of sado-sexual Nazi mentality is made in this oppressive, strongly expressionist film about an inhibited petty bourgeois family-man whose work with corpses at the local crematorium – to free them for the after-life – gains unexpected proportions during the Nazi occupation […] Editing and camerawork is strongly influenced by the new cinema in the West. Equally surprising for the puritanical East is its clear, yet entirely ‘hidden’ portrayal of fellatio, with the girl under a table and the man sitting behind it: at the end, she merges, wiping her mouth.” Indeed, probably not realizing Herz is a fellow chosenite, Vogel highlights supposed Nazi perversity while unwittingly exposing his own perversion and spiritual contempt for Slavic folk. When it comes down to it, The Cremator is really the freewheeling artistic expression of a damaged and debauched holocaust survivor who, as a Eastern European Jew, is a quite worthy heir of Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz (who of course influenced the Brothers Quay who were also heavily influenced by Herz’s friend and collaborator Jan Švankmajer). 



 If any film manages to reconcile the grotesque expressionist poetry of Gottfried Benn with the disturbingly degenerate caricatures of the poet’s ideological nemesis George Grosz, it is indubitably The Cremator which, rather fittingly, oftentimes feels like a tribute to virtually all forms of pre-Nazi Entartete Kunst. If Italian-Jewish criminologist was right when he argued in his text Man of Genius (1889) that artistic genius was oftentimes a form of hereditary insanity, Herz’s films certainly support that thesis as they are clearly not the product of a sound mind but a debauched dude whose potent aesthetic vision is only rivaled by his clear affection for the fantastically rancid and risqué and it is next to impossible to separate the two in a frolicsomely fucked film like The Cremator where social conformity becomes a symbol of moral corrosion despite the film itself being a gleeful expression of moral corrosion where morbidity is made merry yet the everyday and bourgeois is somehow supposed to be the sickest thing of all. In its horror-ish depiction of the mental decline of an enterprising bourgeois family man, the film can certainly be compared to works ranging from Arturo Ripstein’s The Castle of Purity (1973) aka El castillo de la pureza to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), but Herz’s magnum opus is ultimately a singular flick that really has no contemporaries. While it is easy to describe it as an anti-nazi/anti-bourgeois critique straight from the blackened heart of a renegade holocaust survivor, I think it is also a film that resonates with fellow Jew Gustav Mahler’s words, “In my works can be found my whole existence, my whole view of life. . . .There too will be found my angst—my anxiety, my fear.”  In terms of its unwaveringly subversive spirit, gorgeous yet grotesque neo-gothic aesthetic, and rather brazen approach to depicting the ultimate taboo of familicide, I think the film comes closest to Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio's truly iconoclastic debut feature Fists in the Pocket (1965).



 Auter Herz wants you to immediately known right from the get-go of The Cremator that the titular protagonist is a banal bourgeois guy with a banal bourgeois family, but he also wants you to know that there is something serious off and unnerving weird about this somewhat cartoonish protagonist who acts if he is the autistic star of an insanely idealized dream than a real person with a real life. Indeed, as Karel Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínský) states to his wife at the very beginning of the film in a spasmodically edited scene while hanging out with his nuclear family at the local zoo, “My sweet…This is the blessed spot where we met 17 years ago. Only the leopard is new. Kind nature long ago relieved the other of his shackles. You see, dear, I keep talking of nature’s benevolence, of merciful fate, of the kindness of God. We judge and criticize others, rebuke them. But what about we ourselves? I always have the feeling that I do so little for you […] Thanks to your dowry…to your blessed mother’s support and the support of your aunt. Perhaps I furnished our apartment, but that’s about all. Dear, I must take care of you. Zina is 16, Mili 14. Come now, children… Cages are for mute creatures.” Undoubtedly, Herr Kopfrkingl is big on freedom as he sees his job as cremator as a form of liberation where he is selflessly liberates souls as inspired by his curious influence from Bardo Thodol aka The Tibetan Book of the Dead. As a mensch that respects his Judaic physician Dr. Bettleheim (Eduard Kohout), new employee Strauss (Jiří Lír), and half-Hebrew wife Lakmé (Vlasta Chramostová who also portrays the protagonist’s favorite prostitute), Kopfrkingl seems totally devoid of racial prejudice, but it does not take much for him to be convinced of the virtues of completely betraying all the Jews in his life when his brutal kraut Nazi comrade Walter Reinke (Ilja Prachař) tells him of the new Aryan agenda that includes many personal perks, including an all-blonde brothel and a nice new job as an all-power cremator that dedicates his life to “liberating” souls.  No longer content with just burning bodies, Kopfrkingl graduates on to coldblooded murder so that he speed-up the process of liberating souls. While initially thinking of himself as nothing more than a proud cultivated Czech that even enjoys the “Jewish way” of “jellied carp” during Christimas, Kopfrkingl begins stating things like, “even the old Teutons, dear friends, burned their dead, entrusted them to flames,” after his rather culturally confused Nazi conversion and it is ultimately his beloved mischling family the pays the most pernicious price in a film where ideology and insanity are virtually depicted as one and the same.


 Indeed, aside from betraying his Jewish friends after receiving the distinguished honor of being invited by his boy Bettleheim to a Chevra Suda dinner and providing phony talk of a Jewish conspiracy to his Nazi friends, Kopfrkingl goes completely crazy and kills his Jewish wife and son (although he also tries to kill his beloved daughter, the Nazis promise to do the job for him) so that they can be properly cremated with Aryan corpses and obtain a patently preposterous posthumous purity of sorts. Despite being clearly unhinged, Kopfrkingl is provided with top secret knowledge by a Nazi bigwig about a souped-up crematorium and gas chambers, which he naturally fully approves of. Not surprisingly, Herr Kopfrkingl’s mental decline parallels his rise to power and he increasingly comes into contact with his rather dedicated Dalai Lama doppelganger who confirms to him the crucial spiritual necessity of his work. In fact, at the very end of the film in an ominously otherworldly scene where Nazi bigwigs drive him away in a fancy car in the rain as a virtual young witchy Angel of Death sees him off, Kopfrkingl declares with a strange degree of deranged gleeful dedication, “No one will suffer. I’ll save them all” as he schizophrenically imagines himself being driven to Dalai Lama's Potala Palace where he assumedly believes he will be taking over (notably, the film takes place in the aftermath of the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, in 1933, which was also the same year as the rise of Hitler and National Socialist takeover of Germany). Of course, as Cioran once so rightly and elegantly wrote, “Nietzsche’s great luck—to have ended as he did: in euphoria!”  Indeed, Kopfrkingl might have brutally murdered his family members and betrayed virtually every friend he has ever had, but he is nothing if not exceedingly enraptured as if he has literally died and gone to heaven.



 With its captivating combination of severely spasmodic schizo editing, sometimes nauseating and even necrotic yet simultaneously faux-merry melodrama, gorgeously grotesque gothic aesthetics and tone, charmingly creepy caricature-like characters, heterodox horror ingredients and somehow paradoxically antiquated yet avant-garde essence, The Cremator—a film that manages to both define and transcend the movement is belongs to—is surely the cream of the Czech cinematic crop and a rare merry celluloid testament to the metaphysics of morbidity and misanthropy. In its depiction of an almost transcendental transformation of a bourgeois bore and striking experimental dreamlike cinematography, the film sometimes almost feels John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966) as produced by the ghost of Val Lewton had he died brutally and morbidly in a concentration camp (as opposed to rather impotently croaking from a low-key heart attack like he did in real-life). Of course, despite the film’s preternatural persuasion, auteur Juraj Herz wears his many eclectic aesthetic influences on his sleeve, most notably during a scene in the film where the film’s protagonist stands in front of great Early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights,’ hence Kopfrkingl's classic lines from the film like, “The only certainty in life is death…and the implementation of a propitious new order. The Fuehrer’s new, fortunate Europe and death are the only certainties that we humans have.”  While executed in an innately ironical fashion, Herz's film is nothing if not a truly hypnotic celebration of Spanish homeboy José Millán Astray's classic motto: “Long Live Death.” Instead of hysterically harping on the holocaust, Herz seamlessly interweaves classic pieces of art (including of the archaic Judaic sort) and even vintage Aryan pornography to tell something profoundly (disturbing) about the (in)human condition, thereupon confirming the perennial nature of truly great art in a cinematic work that, despite its decidedly degenerate essence, should be celebrated as a truly great piece of cinematic art. Of course, it should be no surprise that the film also pays tribute to the grotesque grandiosity of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol as it is a key aesthetic influence in a cinematic work that audaciously borrows from the highbrow and lowbrow without ever once attempting to discriminate between the two, hence the aberrant artistic brilliance of the film. Indeed, The Cremator might contain the aesthetic integrity and overall meticulousness of mise-en-scène of an early Tarkvosky flick, but it also has the unhinged spirit and intense amorality of an Andy Milligan flick à la Seeds (1968). In that sense, it is no surprise that Herz later went into more genre-driven artsploitation oriented territory with a film like Ferat Vampire (1982) aka Upír z Feratu which is notable for being a bloodsucker flick with a blood-fueled automobile. 



 By sheer happenstance, I was recently reading Emil Cioran’s classic text The Trouble With Being Born (1973) around the same time I re-watched The Cremator and soon discovered the Romanian philosopher gave what would be a nice thematic description of the film when he wrote, “Annihilating affords a sense of power, flatters something obscure, something original in us. It is not by erecting but by pulverizing that we may divine the secret satisfactions of a god. Whence the lure of destruction and the illusions it provokes among the frenzied of any era.” In fact, the book contains a number of aphorisms that would make for suitable descriptions of the film. For Example, the deranged protagonist is strangely likeable because, as Cioran noted, “We forgive only madmen and children for being frank with us: others, if they have the audacity to imitate them, will regret it sooner or later.” In terms of the film’s depiction of paternal filicide, one might be tempted to awkwardly laugh at Cioran’s remark, “My vision of the future is so exact that if I had children, I should strangle them here and now.” As for the film’s shamelessly merry misanthropy and overall decided worship of death, one cannot help but wallow in Cioran’s words, “Man gives off a special odor: of all the animals, he alone smells of the corpse.”

As for the film’s director Herz, who I have mixed feelings about but regard his shoah flick as a masterpiece, The Cremator is a good example of what Cioran was hinting at when he wrote, “A writer has left his mark on us not because we have read him a great deal but because we have thought of him more than is warranted. I have not frequented Baudelaire or Pascal particularly, but I have not stopped thinking of their miseries, which have accompanied me everywhere as faithfully as my own.” Indeed, as someone that could certainly do without ever see another holocaust flick again, I have to argue that Herz is, to some extent, a rare artist with virtual alchemical abilities as morbid mensch that can clearly take the shittiest and most play-out subjects and molds them into something akin to artistic gold.  After all, there is more genuine horror in a single slice of dark humor in The Cremator than there is in the entirety of Schindler's List but I guess that should be expected from a film that basks in the banality of big budget bathos.  Of course, it would probably be fairer to compare Herz's flick to The Pianist (2002) as it was also directed by a holocaust survivor of sorts but ultimately The Cremator has more in common with Roman Polanski's early Polish avant-garde features like The Lamp (1959) aka Lampa—a film that certainly can be seen as a sort of allegory for the holocaust and the apocalyptic nightmare nature of the Second World War in general, especially in Eastern Europe—than the director's hit Palme d'Or and Academy Award-winning Hollywood holocaust flick.



 To shamelessly borrow another quote from Cioran, I think that auteur Herz would approve of his words in relation to a major theme of The Cremator when he wrote, “When we think of the Berlin salons in the Romantic period, of the role played in them by a Henrietta Herz or a Rachel Levin, of the friendship between the latter and Crown Prince Louis-Ferdinand; and when we then think that if such women had lived in this century they would have died in some gas chamber, we cannot help considering the belief in progress as the falsest and stupidest of superstitions.” Of course, one of the most brilliant aspects of the film is that it seems like a Hebrew-helmed aesthetic hodgepodge of numerous pre-Nazi European artistic movements over the last two centuries that concludes with German Expressionism, thereupon associating, not unlike Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s magnum opus Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977), the Third Reich with the dubious legacy of the destruction of European art and culture as a result of the Hitlerite taint. In short, the capitulation of Nazi Germany also resulted in an absurd aesthetic holocaust sorts, hence Frankfurt school Führer Theodor Adorno’s despicable dictum that, “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Of course, The Cremator is pleasantly putrid cinematic poetry as directed by a holocaust survivor and it certainly says more about than shoah than, say, Claude Lanzmann’s badly bloated 566-minute anti-polack doc Shoah (1985).  Indeed, Herz's film is the closest thing the world will ever have to a film as directed by Otto Dix, albeit from a savagely sardonic post-shoah Jewish perspective instead of a savagely sardonic post-WWI kraut one.


Notably, in her insightful text Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany (1995), German-language folklore and literature scholar Maria Tatar noted that in Nazi Germany, “Jews came to be linked not only with the perpetrators of sexual murder, but with the victims as well. Like the prostitute, the Jew is seen to represent a serious threat to the moral, fiscal, and sexual economy of the social body. As Sander Gilman has pointed out, both prostitutes and Jews have been linked by what is seen to be a sexualized relation to capital—they have ‘but one interest, the conversion of sex into money or money into sex.’ Unable to find value in transcendent spiritual matters, their interests remain fixed on the material and financial. More important, prostitutes and Jews, because of their spiritual corruption, are considered carriers of sexually transmitted diseases, a view clearly articulated in Hitler's MEIN KAMPF.”  Of course, one of the most intriguing and perversely trollish aspects of The Cremator is that auteur Herz completely subverts these stereotypes and depicts the Nazi characters in the fashion Tatar describes as the Nazis have their own special all-blonde bordello where they debased Aryan dames as a reward for their role in the destruction of Eastern European Jewry.  Additionally, lead character Karel Kopfrkingl is a particularly perverted hypocrite with a strange fear-cum-fetish of STDs to the point where he regularly sees his Jewish physician friend Dr. Bettleheim, who he eventually betrays to secure his place as a patron of Aryan prostitution, to see if he has contracted a sexually-transmitted disease (in fact, Kopfrkingl seems especially enamored while admiring a grotesque Bellmer-esque STD display at a local carnival in a scene that really underscores the character's innate association of sex and death).

As Tatar also noted in her book, the “Jewish vampire” was another common trope of (proto)Nazi culture as arguably most brutally described in Artur Dinter's popular Weimar era novel Die Sünde wider das Blut (1917) aka The Sin Against the Blood but also largely apolitical cinematic works like F.W. Murnau's masterpiece Nosferatu (1922).  While The Cremator does not feature any literal bloodsuckers, it does feature its fair share of blood and Kopfrkingl can certainly be seen as an unconventional ‘psychic vampire’ of sorts.  Needless to say, it is no surprise that director Herz would later work in the vampire genre.  In that sense, one can see Hebrew Herz as an artist that is so gleefully transgressive in both the aesthetic and (meta)political sense that he has fully embraced the negative Nazi racial stereotypes to the point of nihilistic fury as if his main goal with his art was to destroy the very meaning of early twentieth-century race, art, and culture.  After all, one simply cannot finish The Cremator without being ‘touched,’ if not being downright tormented.  Indeed, the film almost makes me want to agree with Cioran, who I will quote one more time, when he wrote, “The number of fanatics, extremists, and degenerates I have been able to admire!  A relief bordering on orgasm at the notion that one will never again embrace a cause, any cause . . .”  Naturally, things get a big complicated when one finds themselves being able to respect both Herz and Dinter.  In terms of attempting to reconcile a film like The Cremator and NS thinkers like Dinter, Alfred Rosenberg, and Hans F. K. Günther, the alpha-neofolk outfit Death In June is your best bet, especially their somewhat obscure album Free Tibet (2006) where The Tibetan Book of the Dead receives a tribute of sorts.



-Ty E