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

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