In his own eyes and in the eyes of the people around him, Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský) is a good man. A cremator in late 1930s Prague, he regards his work as a service to humanity, even a holy act, drawing inspiration from both the Bible and one of Alexandra David-Néel’s books on Tibet. “Suffering is an evil which we must eliminate or at least diminish,” he reads aloud from the latter. “The sooner a person returns to dust, the sooner he or she will be liberated, transformed, enlightened, reincarnated.” He’s concerned about the welfare of animals as well as humans; he doesn’t smoke or drink; he loves music; he appears to be devoted to his wife, Marie (Vlasta Chramostová) — out of romanticism, he calls her Lakmé and asks her to call him Roman — and their teenage children, Zina (Jana Stehnová) and Mili (Milos Vognic). However, Kopfrkingl is not the man he likes to think he is — whether he realizes it or not.
From the start of Juraj Herz’s 1969 film The Cremator, something about Kopfrkingl seems… off. Less than trustworthy, perhaps. Unctuous. Maybe it’s the unsettling smile that rarely leaves his face, or the cloying language that he uses: his wife and children are “my beloved ones,” the family’s cat is “our magic beauty.” Whatever the reason, it’s no surprise when the not-so-savory elements of his character start to manifest themselves, though that doesn’t make them any less disturbing.
For one thing, Kopfrkingl loves his job — all well and good, especially since he views cremation as a humane and sacred act. However, considering the morbid nature of his work, he may love it a bit too much. While showing a new employee (Jirí Menzel) around the crematorium, he points out a small opening through which a person can look into the furnace: “Of course, you will see nothing right now, Mr. Dvorák. But surely you will have the opportunity during a nice cremation.” A little later on, the attraction that death holds for him becomes even more evident when he and his family go to an amusement park, or perhaps a carnival. Although Lakmé and the children are delighted by the rides, the games, the acrobatic displays, Kopfrkingl frowns. “Oh no, my beauties,” he says. “I have something better for you.” His “something better” turns out to be a gory waxworks exhibition on famous murders, and in contrast to his family’s horror, he looks on with an expression of placid pleasure.
If anything rivals Kopfrkingl’s obsession with death, it’s his obsession with women. He’s frequently distracted by them, both in live form and in nude photographs and paintings, which are shown in rapidly cut montages as if to suggest that they overwhelm him. Images and glimpses from a distance aren’t enough for him either. Leering at the crematorium’s cleaning woman, Mrs. Lit’ková (Carmen Mayerová), he approaches her while her back is turned and puts his hand on her shoulder. “You should associate with someone, find someone to protect you. Come talk it over with me tonight,” he says, looming over her. She screams and runs off, yet he slickly absolves himself of any wrongdoing when another woman enters the room and asks what happened. “Mrs. Lit’ková was startled by me,” he says — not quite a lie, but also not the entire truth.
He shows a similar willingness to bend the truth when he visits his doctor (Eduard Kohout) in order to be tested for venereal diseases, something he apparently does on a regular basis. Dr. Bettelheim asks if he thinks these tests are still necessary, to which Kopfrkingl responds, “You know, doctor, that I do not see any other women besides my beloved. I fear that I may seem a hypochondriac to you, doctor. I’m worried about being infected because I work in a crematorium.” When he pays his monthly call on a “massage parlor” a few scenes later, it seems that he was lying outright to the doctor, but there’s a twist: his favorite prostitute, Dagmar, is played by the same actress who plays his wife. Is she simply his type, or is this resemblance an indication that he’s managed to convince himself of his own fidelity? Notably, he mentions to Dagmar that Mr. Dvorák has cut down on his smoking, then repeats the same information to Lakmé at home. “But didn’t I tell you that already?” he asks. The film’s rather disorienting style, full of quick shots, extreme close-ups and cut-free transitions between scenes, adds to this feeling of uncertainty, as does its ominous music. It’s disquieting from the opening scene, and it only becomes more so as Kopfrkingl progresses, slowly but steadily, toward full-fledged evil.
Delusion plays a major role in Kopfrkingl’s transformation, along with both his virtues and his vices. An old friend from World War I, Walter Reinke (Ilja Prachar), has become enamored of Hitler and the Third Reich, and he urges Kopfrkingl to take a similar interest in his own German heritage, Czech though he is in virtually every respect. The cremator admits that he has “perhaps a drop” of German blood, and Reinke replies that “a truly sensitive person will feel even one drop.” It’s just the sort of remark that would appeal to Kopfrkingl’s vanity — he is, in his mind, a highly sensitive person, a romantic, a lover of beauty — yet he has no interest in becoming a Nazi until Reinke notes that party members have access to a club full of blonde escorts; upon hearing that, he has a sudden change of heart.
Even as he gradually falls under the spell of Nazism, Kopfrkingl only seems to be interested in Germany insofar as he believes it to be a humane state, one that has freed its citizens of their suffering and will someday do the same for the whole world; this is how Reinke has presented the matter to him, and he doesn’t question it. When Reinke has him infiltrate a Jewish gathering to listen for subversive talk, he notices nothing beyond the sadness and beauty of their singing. “It was all as if in a noble burial,” he reports, carelessly affirming, meanwhile, that the people spoke of overthrowing the Reich and seizing power, though no such conversation was shown or heard. As far as he’s concerned, anti-German Czechs — which, following the Munich Agreement and the “liberation” of Prague, means most of his neighbors and co-workers — are “infected,” and the Jews are, in Reinke’s words, a “poor, hapless” people incapable of understanding all that Hitler has to offer. The humane thing, then, for them and for society at large, would be to free them from their inevitable future suffering…
Kopfrkingl may think his actions are motivated by altruism, but he soon benefits from them. By having the director of the crematorium and two other colleagues arrested for expressing anti-German sentiments, he becomes the director himself. Is that his real, selfish goal from the start, or does he genuinely believe that he’s acting for the good of the world? Is he calculating and conniving? Is he naive? Is he insane? Most importantly, for all of his high-minded talk, his supposed benevolence leads him to commit atrocities without a hint of remorse, as if he’s lost sight of his humanity at a personal level while trying to aid humanity at large; and the more his egotism and delusion increase, the greater the scale of his evil. The Cremator is a deeply disturbing film, one that reveals just how easily noble ideas can be twisted into something hideous and hateful.
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