Mr Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusínský) is the owner of a Czech crematorium in the late nineteen-thirties, and he is anxious to drum up business, which is largely dependent on how many dead bodies he can acquire to reduce to ashes, a procedure that only takes seventy-five minutes as he is keen to point out to any potential customers. After taking his family to the zoo one day, and discussing with his wife what his big plans for his business are, he arranges a dinner dance where the cityfolk can hear his spiel, but he will soon be given the opportunity to cremate more bodies than he could ever imagine...
The Cremator, or Spalovac mrtvol in its original tongue, is considered by many to be the greatest horror film ever to emerge from what used to be Czechoslovakia, and is often taken to be part of the far too short-lived Czech New Wave of cinema that occured in the sixties. But its director Juraj Herz was never really part of that gang, more closely allied to the likes of the brilliant animator Jan Svankmajer, a contemporary of his (although the director of the better known Closely Observed Trains, Jirí Menzel, has a supporting acting role here), as his work edged further to the surreal.
As much as Herz ploughed his own furrow, it is this film that stands out in his body of work for many if for nothing other than its striking style, both visual and aural. As far as the soundtrack goes, there is a near-constant stream of consciousness monologue from the main character which leaves us privy to his thoughts and how he sees himself as a great liberator of souls, even going to the extent of comparing himself to a religious leader - Tibetan, if you're interested. Coupled with this insidiously unnerving purring is a similarly uninterrupted musical accompaniment from Zdenek Liska, sounding ethereal and at times quite beautiful, yet in this context unmistakably menacing.
Not that there's much of the explicit horror in The Cremator, it's more the realisation, which doesn't take as long to hit home as Herz seemed to think, that Kopfrkingl is well on his way to joining the Nazis. To illustrate how fascism turned ordinary Europeans into people who would willingly send their neighbours to terrible fates because they thought they had a moral superiority that evidently was absent, the cremator takes this to an extreme by rejecting his wife, who is half Jewish, and his son and daughter who he believes have been tainted by the blood running in their veins, not realising that it is he and the ideology he has adopted who are the overwhelming danger to society.
Herz's work here is very distinctive, not only because of what you hear but of what you see. He will continually return to closeups of the cast, usually the oily Kopfrkingl (a riveting performance), as if to throw you off guard and persuade you that yes, this film's overriding ambition is to give you the creeps. If anything he is overemphatic and the experience becomes suffocating, as the insistent tone of the death-obsessed central character does not let up for the full ninety minutes. It comes as no surprise as to where this is leading, but the protagonist's conviction that he is only sparing those who do not conform to the Nazis and in fact setting them free creates genuine unease, especially when he puts his ideas into practice. If you ever needed reminding that the Holocaust was the product of evil "rationalised" in the minds of men, then The Cremator will serve that purpose, and as an artistic achievement it is an uncomfortable success.