This odd, calm, unnerving Czech movie is not for the faint of heart. It's not for those who mind some slow stretches, either. Still, there is a masterful, upsetting, sad, frightening and crazy-as-a-loon ending that brings the movie back sharply into focus
Kopfrkingl is the director of the town's only crematorium, a business his father started 40 years earlier. The place is Czechoslovakia just before WWII. Nazis and their Czech collaborators are soon to take over. Kopfrkingl is a sincere man, a bit pudgy, in early middle age who is dedicated to the services he provides. He thinks of his crematorium almost as a temple. He's married to the woman he met at the panther cage in the zoo. He has two children. He dotes on them all. He has an elderly Jewish doctor check his blood every month to make sure, he says, that he has caught nothing from his corpses. He's probably more worried about catching something from his favorite prostitute he visits every month. He is teaching a young, new assistant the procedures of the crematorium. We see all this in the first twelve minutes of the movie...and if these first twelve minutes of Spalovac Mrtvol (The Cremator) don't capture you, then you're no connoisseur of the odd and unsettling. For that matter, if Rudolf Hrusinsky's portrayal of Kopfrkingl doesn't capture you with his quiet voice and solicitude, then you're no connoisseur of odd and unsettling characters.
"Cremation is humane," Kopfrkingl tells his 14-year-old son, Mili, his 16-year-old-daughter, Zina, and us, "It rids people of the fear of death. Dear children, do not fear cremation." Death is just the liberation of the soul. The purity of cremation brings purity to the soul. Only 75 minutes in the oven and the cremator has returned dust to dust, and without the messiness that the other way guarantees. It will be only a matter of time before Kopfrkingl's Czech friends with pure German blood show him that a new order is needed to bring purity and rectitude. His crematorium will give his life its own purpose and purity that was meant to be. An hour into the movie we learn how calm and monstrous he is.
Since Kopfrkingl is, of course, as crazy as a loon...a calm, soothing loon. He combs a corpse's hair, then without a thought combs his own hair with the same comb. Kopfrkingl's calmness comes from the certitude that what he does serves a noble purpose. There is tenderness but without compassion, morals but without morality, love but without commitment, belief but with nothing but derangement. Did I mention...his wife had a Jewish grandmother and his children are now classified as part Jews? To be cleansed, we all must die. "Frost burns the flowers' flush cheeks, and the Angel of Death takes his toll."
The Cremator is not at all a black comedy. It's more an ironic funeral dirge. Once we get the point that the director, Juraj Herz, sets up for us, there's not much more to develop. What's left is to watch how things play out. An hour into the movie we realize things will not play out well for almost anyone. In a strange and perhaps unplanned reversal of symbolism, the Nazi slaughter of Jews involving the efficient use of crematoriums becomes a metaphor for Kopfrkingl's looniness. Shouldn't it be the other way around? By the end of the movie, it is. Give this movie a chance and I think you'll be rewarded.