Czechoslovak New Wave iconoclast Juraj Herz’s terrifying, darkly comic vision of the horrors of totalitarian ideologies stars a supremely chilling Rudolf Hrušínský as the pathologically morbid Karel Kopfrkingl, a crematorium director in 1930s Prague who believes fervently that death offers the only true relief from human suffering. When he is recruited by the Nazis, Kopfrkingl’s increasingly deranged worldview drives him to formulate his own shocking final solution. Blending the blackest of gallows humor with disorienting expressionistic flourishes—queasy point-of-view shots, distorting lenses, jarring quick cuts—the controversial, long-banned masterpiece The Cremator is one of cinema’s most trenchant and disturbing portraits of the banality of evil.
The Criterion Collection presents Juraj Herz’s The Cremator on Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
The final presentation for this is absolutely striking right from the get-go, delivering a crisp, clean image that rarely falters. The level of detail throughout is particularly impressive, all of the fine nuances coming through clearly whether its close-up of an elephant’s eye or a long shot (with a fish-eye lens) of a grimy crematorium basement, the latter of which can look so vivid you’d swear you feel it on you. The film is heavily stylized, using disorienting camera moves and angles, a fish-eye lens here and there, and quick edits, but this encode handles it all remarkably well, and outside of a couple shots that look a little dupey or softer this almost looks like it could have been filmed recently.
The source materials are in remarkable shape and the clean-up work has managed to wipe out just about every blemish (I recall a minor spec here and there), and grain has been left intact, and looks very clean. In all this looks rather astonishing and all of the hard work has certainly paid off, with the film’s nightmare imagery breathes to life. I’m sure the film’s protagonist, Kopfrkingl, would find it just exquisite.
The disc’s lossless PCM 1.0 monaural presentation manages to be surprisingly dynamic, at least when it comes to the film’s striking score. The music features some surprising highs and lows without ever coming off edgy or harsh. The music sounds rich and fidelity is excellent. Spoken dialogue comes off a bit flat, though, even the voice-over narration, but it’s still clean and intelligible. The soundtrack also lacks any significant damage and noise.
Criterion puts together a decently stacked special edition for the film, starting things off with excerpts from a documentary called This Way to the Cooling Chambers, featuring director Herz revisiting locations used in the film, primarily the multiple crematoriums that made up the “single” one in the film. While visiting them he talks about filming and how they’ve changed (though creepily enough, the location used for the basement doesn’t look to have changed at all), sharing a few stories. There are also a few amusing moments, like one where a worker comes around the corner with a coffin and looks caught off guard by the film crew there.
Criterion next provides a new interview with film programmer Irena Kovarova, who covers the film’s production and eventual release in significant detail. He explains how Herz was more interested in genre filmmaking and the basic concept of the book (on which the film is ultimately based) provided that, and explains how the film was originally conceived (I was most surprised to learn that Herz had planned the film to be in colour). He also talks about the visuals of the film, particularly the use of fish-eye lens, and how that mixed with the music and frantic editing conveys a sense of the main character descending into madness (though I guess it could be argued he was already a good way there), and then covers the original ending, which sounds to have been filmed but was dumped since it was critical of the Russian invasion. It’s a fascinating film on many levels and this feature does an admirable job covering its production and its unique look.
The film’s most memorable aspect, outside of its visuals, is easily the score, and Criterion includes the 54-minute documentary Music By Zden?k Liška, which goes over composer Zden?k Liška’s film work, including interviews with Herz, Jan Švankmajer, the Quay brothers, and others (including someone who likes to do remixes using samples of the composers music). It covers his work, looks at how his music is becoming popular again (at least in 2017 when the documentary was made), and then looks at the various films his music appeared in. The best part, though, is the last section where Stephen and Timothy Quay talk about discovering the music and how they used it to influence their own work. An excellent inclusion.
Criterion also includes an archival interview from 1993 with actor Rudolf Hrusínsky talking about his career and how he prepares for a role, and there is also a trailer advertising the film’s new restoration. The release also comes with an insert featuring an essay by Jonathan Owen.
Probably the best feature, though, is Herz’s short film The Junk Shop, which was initially created for the Czech omnibus film Pearls of the Deep but pulled when the film was running on too long. Presented in high-definition (though not looking to have been restored much if at all), the film focuses on a recycling center and the eccentric characters that either work there or visit it, and the many issues that I guess can come up in such a place (whether it being a woman trying to negotiate a good price to recycle her love letters, or a mother looking for the child lost somewhere in all of the junk). Though nowhere near as dark as The Cremator, Herz’s surreal sense of humour is on full display here, though it’s not subtle in any way. A fun way to close out the release.
Packed with some rich and engaging features (including a short film from Herz) and a stunning looking presentation, this edition comes with a very high recommendation.