The Cremator [1969] – An Expressionistic Horror on an Agent of Genocide

“Cremation is quiet humane and frees people from fear of death”

                                                                               --- Karl Kopfrkingl, the Cremator

                                          Prolific Czech film-maker Juraj Herz’s “The Cremator” (aka ‘Spalovac mrtvol’, 1969) is the kind of disorientating movie you need to watch (at least) two times to fully appreciate it. It would take quite some time (while watching it for the first time) to grasp the macabre characterization, setting and historical relevance. In the second viewing, after getting familiar with the narrative trajectory, we can marvel and further delve into its expressionistic cinematography and rapid cutting which immerses us on the distorted consciousness of the cremator protagonist Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky). “The Cremator” amalgamates the elements of psychological horror with that of dark comedy and the resulting tone is both jarring and lyrical.

                                           In the 1960’s, Czechoslovakian film-makers made some of the greatest humane and satirical works, which resulted to ‘Czech New Wave’. The key works of directors Milos Forman, Jiri Menzel, Jan Kadar, Jan Nemec and Ivan Passer were regarded as part of Czech New Wave, while the works of Juraj Herz is often said to be marginalized due to his puppet artist status. Juraj Herz studied in the puppetry department in Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (AMU) along with another renowned Czech film-maker Jan Svankmejer (Herz also worked as assistant director in Jan Kadar’s Oscar winning masterpiece “The Shop on Main Street”, 1965). “The Cremator” was Juraj Herz’s third feature and when he began shooting, his country was in its short-lived period of liberalization (between January 5th 1968 and August 21, 1968, known as ‘Prague Spring’). Herz’s artistic freedom was cut down before finishing the film as Soviet Union regained its hold over Czech film industry. Although the film was set in 1939, relating to the events after Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, director Herz ambiguously referred to the domination of totalitarian forces like the Soviet Union. This sharp allegorical nature of the film made Soviet censors to immediately ban the film and its complex, valuable social commentary was only discovered decades later.

                                              Based on Ladislav Fuks 1967 novel (Fuks and Herz collaborated on the script), “The Cremator’s” bizarre, creepy subjectivity offers us a trip of madness and murder. The extreme close-ups, spookily sedating oration, fish-eye lenses, uncomfortable inter-cuts, fluid cross-cutting, unbelievably quick transitions, and a haunting choral score keeps on increasing our feelings of terror as if we are trapped inside the mind of a self-seeking madman (and despite the pervading sense of doom there are some unforgettable moments of jet-black comedy). The central character Karl Koprfrikingl is so obsessed with his job that he can turn any casual conversation into the one citing importance of his job. He is a cremator, although he likes to describe himself as the one who alleviate humans from the evil of suffering and sets the soul free from body to be reincarnated. Karl calls the crematorium as ‘temple of death’ and while giving a tour of the place to a new co-worker Mr. Dvorak he explains every practical work with a blend of quirky observations: “these furnaces always reminds me of the ones in which our daily bread is baked”.

                                          Karl also shows immense love for his wife Lakme (Vlasta Chramostava) and concern for his children future (teenagers Zina and Milli).  Karl’s finds simple pleasure in life by visiting a brothel, grotesque wax works and hearing classical music. He doesn’t smoke or drink, but pays a visit to doctor Bettelheim to check for any infection. Karl gradually becomes a prisoner of the morbid aspects of his profession and this is facilitated by the arrival of Nazi sympathizer friend Walter Reinke (Ilja Prachar). Under the friend’s influence, Karl goes to Dr. Bettleheim to trace his ‘pure’ Germanic roots in the blood. The doctor says “they are all the same like human ashes, be they French or Spanish, doctor or clerk”. But, Karl Kopfrkingl is encouraged to reject the words of ‘Jewish doctor’ and to act as informant for ‘The Party’. His descent into madness comes full circle, when he starts to believe on the ‘Party’s’ idea of salvation. Now all Karl wants to do liberate as many souls as possible, including the souls of his family members and friends.

                                             The biggest challenge for director Herz in “The Cremator” is not adapting the bizarre events & characters to the screen, but designing a visual language that remains equivalent to the literary description of a deteriorating mind. The pre-title sequence of the film opens in front of leopard cage in the zoo, where Kopfrkingl met his wife Lakme, 17 years ago. The shots of Karl and his family are brilliantly juxtaposed with that of animals in the cage. There are a lot of extreme close-up shots of Karl’s creased forehead and prowling eyes, which are juxtaposed with the eyes of a lion, head of crocodile and tongue-flicking snake. These earlier shots hint at his animalistic tendencies and also suggest us about the upcoming unsettling atmosphere. In the same sequence, Karl claims his family as ‘decent & perfect’, while he and his family members stands in front of a convex mirror. The shot uses fish-eye lens (one of the many use of fish-eye lens in the film) which conveys both dysfunctions in his family and the deranging mental attitude of Karl. Some times there are extreme close-up shots of actual fish eyes, which the ‘Senses of Cinema’ article (written by Adam Schofield) describes as ‘conscious bit of meta-self-mockery in regards to the use of fish-eye lenses’.

                                               The title sequence is filled with fragmented body parts of female, which hints at his tendency to objectify women’s body and also about his unquenchable sexual desire. When Karl hangs a picture of beautiful art at his home, his mind conjures up images of nude women (jump-cuts are employed), suggesting his demented mental landscape. In the scene when Karl stands indecisively about where to hang the portrait of Nicaraguan President, flash-cuts are used where Karl is seen holding the portrait in various parts of room. The same technique is employed when Karl remains undecided about joining the party. Reinke’s words on party membership & the membership document are flash-cut with the images of naked woman, since those pictures are what tempts him the most than the ideology. Perhaps the greatest aspect of Herz’s visual language lies in the way he beautifully transitions from one setting to another. The dialogues have an unbroken flow and the expressions of Karl remain unchanged, but the character is invisibly transported over to a different setting. For example, Karl undresses alongside prostitute Dagmar (who eerily resembles his wife Lakme) in a brothel room and holds the ‘insect collection’ frame in his hand and goes on to hang it, but when he hangs it we understand that the scene has transitioned to his home. In another scene, Karl simultaneously witnesses a Jewish celebration and recounts it to Reinke. These fluid transitions showcase the increasing loss of reality and disorientation (the absence of continuity means is equated with the absence of rationality in Karl’s mind).

                                                  Director Herz and cinematographer Stanislov Milota combines the interior space of unnerving sets along with fast-cuts to create the horror feeling. The subjectivity that’s emphasized through the recurrent use of wide-lenses easily passes through the horror elements. Both the flash-cuts and subjectivity keeps us trapped inside Karl’s mind. In the scene when Karl takes his family to the carnival, the shots of smiling children at the playground, brings a sour expression to Karl’s face. But, inside the waxworks which exhibits brutal murders, Karl offers a devilish smile, indicating the desensitized nature of him. When the ‘bathhouse murder’ is vividly enacted by wax works, all Karl thinks about is their clean bathroom. In fact the horrific insensitivity of Karl in the waxworks exhibit paves the path for the murders he commits at the end (the metal bar and hanging rope foreshadows the ominous events waiting to happen). There are many other odd, eccentric framing decisions to demonstrate the unsettling nature between individual and surroundings. One particular, unforgettable odd framing comes toward the ending (after Karl committing those heinous acts in collaboration with Nazis). In this scene, Karl stands in front of a diabolic painting of Bosch and as he explains his grand idea to ‘free souls’, a nauseating montage of the hellish images in Boschian fresco is paraded for intimating the fully perverted sense of Karl’s (and Nazi’s or a totalitarian state’s) ideology.

                                                   Despite employing such elaborate cinematic tricks, Director Herz’ s visual language doesn’t remain confounding or digressing in imparting the strong, incendiary statement about totalitarian state. Even though it is systematically odd, it speaks perfectly to indict the irrational, vile dogmas of both the ‘Third Reich’ and Soviet ‘Iron Curtain’. Karl interpreting ‘Tibetan Book of Dead’ to convince himself and others about cremation and using it further with a sinister edge could be related with the convoluted occult beliefs of the high ranking Nazis. In the waxworks, Karl witnesses various forms of disease and says ‘but modern science can protect us. When he is brainwashed by Nazi ideology, Karl comes to the conclusion that death is only way to prevent contamination (in the waxwork, a plagued young man is shown to commit suicide to stop the contagious disease). He also learns to consider the identity of ‘Jews’ as a plague and insists upon the cure of death. In this way, the Nazi’s final solution is related with that of Karl’s deranged mind. There are many touches of Hitler in Karl’s characterization (veteran of Great War, non-smoker, etc) The lines ‘We live in Europe in the 20th century, a civilized world’ and ‘I hear there’s martial law in the frontier regions’ are stressed out in the narrative to comment on the ironic fate of how Nazi domination is replaced with arrival of Soviet totalitarianism. The doctor’s words like “violence never pays; aggressors will be beaten in the end” may have caused unrest among the censor members of Soviet Union. The visuals and allegorical representations do become heavy-handed at times and the jarring tonal changes between psychological horror & dark comedy sticks out at times. But, such imperfections are upended by the beguiling central performance.  As soft-spoken Karl Kopfrkingl, Rudolf Hrusinsky offers a singular, most memorable, and dizzying trip into the mind of madman. Despite that cheery disposition, his eyes are able to get unnerving enough to get underneath our skin.


                                                “The Cremator” (96 minutes) is a disturbing and ingeniously layered work of cinema that focuses on the horrific individual & sociopolitical changes in an indoctrinated country. It is one of the most unique, visually superior features made on the experiences of totalitarianism. 

Senses of Cinema -- Adam Schofield 

Court [2014] – A Brilliant Indictment of a Creaky Gargantuan ‘System’


                                              The one great thing I felt about Chaitanya Tamhane’s remarkable feature-film debut “Court” (while watching it the 2nd time) is how the film-maker has shunned any preoccupations to explore the timely themes through a rigid sociopolitical lens. And, so a viewer watching it shouldn’t chain its keenness and unique stylistic approach with the label ‘courtroom drama’. Yes, it exposes the absurd nature of a rabbit hole called ‘Indian Judiciary System’ and subtly broods over certain dark realities of Indian society. But Tamhane draws in these aspects on an intriguing humanistic level which instills a profundity that would be missing in ‘movies-with-a-agenda’. “Court" (2014) is about the modern Indians who don’t see or don’t want to see the bigger picture. It doesn’t just inquire upon the clueless, labyrinthine and highly interpretive nature of our legal system; it delves further into our clueless, byzantine thoughts, even when doing deeds out of sheer goodwill. 

                                              The film opens with a shot of a 65 year old social activist and folk singer (‘people’s poet') Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar) in a dense, local community, teaching school children the archaic, unchanging subject of Indian geography. Then he walks through the mazy neighborhood, boards a bus to commemorate a fictional ‘wadgaon massacre’, which could be related with the many brutal attacks on Dalits. The white-bearded gentleman Kamble now starts the real education for oppressed people by singing a song that denounces racism, caste-ism, nationalism and unbridled corruption. The director keeps his unwavering camera on Mr. Kamble’s performance and then transitions to long shot, observing the actions happening around the main action (police gather around the edges of the crowd). Then he is interrupted, arrested and charged for inciting a man-hole worker Vasudev Pawar to commit suicide (through another song performance). It is pretty much obvious that the charges are politically motivated and the judiciary system rather than reinstate old man’s right to freedom of speech espouses Victorian laws to swallow any voice of opposition. 

                                              Nevertheless, “Court” isn’t solely focused on the judiciary struggles of Narayan Kamble. While the film, on one hand, observes the absurdity of cases being adjourned for inane reasons, it also follows the inanity in the lives of three principal players – defense attorney Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber), public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni) and Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi), who are all vital in sealing the fate of Narayan Kamble. The prejudices, perceptions, insecurities and their so-called goodwill make us ask:  how can the judiciary system remain objective in this ocean of bias and rigid moral conditioning? Vinay Vora is an upper Middle Class Gujarati, who likes jazz, cheese and good liquor. Although he is far removed to perfectly grasp the struggles confronted by his oppressed clients, he is thoroughly committed to the cause. Nutan is sick of seeing the same ‘old faces’ and thinks it would be good if they put away guys like Narayan Kamble for 20 years or so. But, despite her pitiless and bureaucratic manner of speaking, she is a middle-class working wife, taking care of two children and a diabetes-afflicted husband. The family enjoys having their little pleasures, like going out to have a lunch and watching a ‘proud’ Marathi drama about casting off ‘immigrants’.  The judge is the perfect representation of a nightmarish Kafkaesque character, whose procedural rigidity allows no room for basic humanity.

                                             Even though the characters in “Court” are blissfully ignorant or painfully clueless of the ‘bigger picture’, director Chaitanya Tamhane has impeccably grasped this ‘bigger picture’ and elucidates it through static, long shots. In this formalistic approach, Tamhane’s dispassionate long shots (cinematography by Mrinal Desai) ask us to observe the whole frame, where the diverse people of India, withholding diverse ‘moral’ values, occupy it. Often, in the court scenes, we see characters pinned to their positions in a static shot to represent the stagnation of legal system. Tamhane flawlessly captures that lack of urgency in courtrooms, where any human emotion is dried out by incessant deferrals. Injustice lurks in each of those long shots (that takes place both inside or outside the court) and the numbed presence of human in those frames frightens us the most. Indian films dealing with societal injustice rarely capture people in their own emotionless milieu and allow the emotions to be naturally felt by audience. By not bringing his own anger, fiery commentary into the narrative, Tamhane is able to justify the character detours. With his cool, dissecting, subjective eye the director/writer imbues acute naturalism to the characters, whose interpretation of law & justice is shaped by their preconceptions. Tamhane also purposefully starts an action long before or extends long after the characters exit the frames to add extra layers to his pointed critique on out-dated traditions & laws (the most memorable moment is when the judge ruefully postpones a case since the woman complainant’s attire isn’t appropriate). 

                                             When legal process replaces humanity with dry, complex legal formulas then the whole judiciary process could itself be transformed into a punishment for those seeking freedom. Tamhane also notes how language plays a role in the courtroom. The laws, including the outdated, vicious ‘Dramatic Performances Act’, are inherited from British and they are in English. The majority of court people, except for defense attorney (he is a Gujarati) are all Maharashtrians and so they easily switch on to Marathi. The language of legal discourse is also something that’s not only baffles the accused, but even the attorney conducting the cases (like the bizarre ‘UAPA Amendment Act’ used to imprison Narayan Kamble). Finally, the greatest of absurdity in the court room lies in the manner the judge paraphrases the argument to the stenographer, typing the verbatim transcript. Even after hearing all sides of an argument, judge is able to twist the attorney’s words (mainly defense attorney’s) while paraphrasing it. Anyone who had observed a court procedure could find perfect truth in these sequences and for others it will be a shattering of illusion. One of my favorite sequences in the film happens towards the end, when the camera, fixed inside the courtroom, observes the humans packing out on the last working day before court’s summer vacation. Up until the point, the lights are turned off, screens closed, and doors locked to full darkness, the shot remains static, passing us the feeling of gazing into a bottomless void.   

                                          Tamhane and his crew not only took on the daunting task of shooting in real locations, but also selected a cast, compiled of untrained actors. The directors’ workmanship is evident in the manner he had extracted the performances. Tamhane shot only one scene at a day and sometimes a sequence took 30 -60 takes. It is a huge challenge, especially after considering many of the ‘no-cuts’ scenes. Many might have complaints about the way the shots are stretched out and also about the ending episode, but the level of mastery the 28 year old director, achieved in his debut feature astounds me. Those with a preoccupation about the narrative may find certain elements digressive, but it all fits nicely into his vision of inhumane bureaucracy. There were few accusations on Tamhane that he had adopted ‘European art-house film form’ to cater for Western audiences. It is a ridiculous comment which is being said back from the days of Satyajit Ray classics. In fact, the director’s refusal to simplify caste system or nuances in portraying the Gujarati, Marathi family could easily be grasped by Indian audiences rather than Western. It also would be futile to regard a particular film-form to be ‘Indian cinema’ since it is so diverse. 


                                          “Court” (115 minutes) is a multifaceted examination of the modern Indian society, where lives are being ebbed away by inane, arid societal divisions and onerous bureaucracy.  Stark, real social truths reverberate in each of the movie’s frames. 

Harakiri aka Seppuku [1962] – A Human Tragedy Cuts through the Mindless Code of Honors

                                               Why should one disapprove the rigid nature of an establishment or a system? Doesn’t that rigidity keeps people in line and allows justice be served? The question we need to ask back is: what kind of people become prey of this ‘rigidity’ and what kind of justice is served? When you seek answers for that question, you can come across the pompous and vacuous nature of an inflexible establishment. The argument for ‘rigidity’ or ‘justice’ is tossed around by the sentinels of the establishment, whenever their decisions have to circumvent basic humanity.  And, our history, most often, is not only written by victors, but also by humans who perceived fellow human tragedies through set of codes and intellectual reasoning. Great men of history have construed rituals and customs more often to advance their own ends and use it as a means to cut down any perceived menace. Japanese master Masaki Kobayashi’s “Harakiri" aka “Seppuku” (1962), set in 1630 feudal Japan, pointedly contemplates on this vile human nature, which I’d like to call as the ‘callousness of establishment’.

                                             The movie opens with the arrival of impoverished and master-less samurai Hanshiro Tsugumo (Tatsuya Nakadai) to the domain of Iyi clan. He is seeking to commit the ritual suicide by disembowelment -- ‘Harakiri’ or ‘Seppuku’ -- in the clan’s courtyard. Tsugumo claims that the peace has unemployed him for years and rather than live like a dog, he prefers suicide by Bushido code. The clan chief Saito (Rentaro Mikuni) narrates a cautionary tale to Tsugumo, upon hearing his request. The tale concerns the fate of Chijiwa Motome (Akira Ishihama), a young samurai from a similar defunct clan, approached Iyi to commit harakiri. The clan’s advisors state Motome is simply trying to extort food or job by threatening ritual suicide. They are ashamed about how a samurai could trade in his unwavering honor for survival. Saito and his underlings of the clan get more enraged when they see the bamboo substitute for a samurai sword. The clan is determined to see Motome commit harakiri with the same bamboo sword or else to cut him down. Motome vainly appeals to Saito to postpone the ritual, but eventually in a brutal sequence he slowly pierces his bowels.

                                             Tsugumo answers that he is a man of his word and would never waver from his decision. The preparations for the custom are made and the important clan members gather in the courtyard to witness it. Tsugumo requests fine swordsman Hikokuro Omodaka (Tetsuro Tanba) to be his ‘second’ – to deliver the mortal blow to head after the disembowelment act. Unfortunately, due to fatigue Omodaka has sought relief from his duties for 3 or 4 days. Tsugumo pleads Saito to bring the swordsman to finish this ritual. While men depart to solicit Omodaka, Tsugumo starts telling his own life story from the time his clan was abolished. He talks about the fate of his beautiful daughter Miho (Shima Iwashita), her husband and their sickly little child. The tale also reveals Tsugumo's reasons for choosing Iyi clan for performing 'Seppuku'.  His incisive looks, words, and actions exhibit the shame and hypocrisy of the clan’s unbending protocols.

                                             By now, cinephiles might be aware of how ‘chanbara’ or ‘samurai' movies gained prominence in the post-World War II Japan (later influenced many Western films & film-makers) and how the great film-makers Akira Kurosawa and Masaki Kobayashi’s approach to this genre differed. Apart from exploring the darker, nether side of Bushido, Kobayashi’s exemplary works beautifully plays with the generic expectations of ‘samurai’ movie. “Harakiri” has astounding sword-fighting set-pieces, like any other great films belonging to the genre. But, what makes it a timeless classic lays in the way Mr. Kobayashi sets his priorities right. Right from the opening shot of the ‘sacred symbol of ancestors’, the film-maker adds narrative weight onto his character and finds enough room to mount the powerful social criticisms. Even when the real hacking and slashing commences, we don’t just see the protagonist outrunning his attackers, but also his fatigue and the sad realization of how one man (despite being a hero) couldn’t overcome a repressing establishment. Nevertheless, Kobayashi’s “Harakiri” heaps most of its damages on the villains through potent words. If we draw parallels to what happened in Japanese feudal era to any oppressive regime in a country, we can come to a conclusion that those empty governance will fall eventually. How? Because, however, majestic and powerful the establishment is, its foundation of hypocrisy & lies are like quick sands, waiting to topple everything. May be our history books on empires might say different things. Alas, history is truthful & real as people make it to be. 

                                           The precise directorial techniques of Kobayashi are a wonder to behold. Often the director impeccably establishes the geography for his tale, before bringing in the characters. In “Harakiri”, Kobayashi opens with the shots of clan’s neatly aligned structures. The camera movements, the framing plus the placid, lined surroundings indicate the ‘rigidness’ or the alleged ‘semblance of order’. The zoom-ins and camera pans are incredibly handled and showcase how one character’s relationship with another transforms within those physical, rigid borders. The framing of ‘ceremonial mat’ in the middle of courtyard indicates the empty adulation on the part of clan observers. Kobayashi amply employs high-angle and low-angle shots to demonstrate the hierarchy between Saito and Tsugumo. The elevated presence of Saito urges us to think upon his non-literal distance (or indifference) with Tsugumo’s plight. The black-and-white cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima weaves a sumptuous aesthetic that emphasizes on the spaces, characters finds themselves in and never tries to lighten up the figurative starkness.  My most favorite of the staging happens when Omodaka confronts Tsugumo at his cramped up hut. Tsugumo takes up Omodaka’s challenge to fight and they both slowly pass through a cemetery, a forest filled with dense bamboo trees, and a field in the mountain, rustling heavily under the wind. The sequence elegantly leads to a duel under the ominous, gloomy sky. Of course, one can’t forget the iconic, close-quarter sword fighting sequence in the climax. The way the swords slash, spear erupts and the walls come down with a brute force offers a visceral treat that’s hard to surpass by any modern action sequences.

                                          Author Donald Richie claims the clan’s ancestor statue, cloaked in (red) armor suit as a metaphor for the false & empty nature of samurai code; its pomp and ceremony preached by rulers to the obedient menials. The statue is seen by Iyi clan as the representation of samurai honor, while a samurai’s blade is perceived as his soul. The uselessness of both the symbols is shown in a both figurative and literal manner. In the final fight, Tsugumo picks up the armored object and throws it, grasping its useless nature and with an intent to desecrate the object. But, despite the destruction of the sacred object, the clan members cover things up to retain an order, and with such an empty act they desecrate the very honor they wanted to uphold. Similarly, by clinging to his coveted sword, Tsugumo understands his own stupidity (but too late) for adhering to ‘figurative’ honor when he could have done a lot to save his family. These two different acts ruminate upon the same thing: on how rituals and ideas of honor become empty and ceremonious, when the much-needed humanity is taken away from it. The lack of humanity creates more fanatic individuals, interested in upholding honor rather than saving human lives. You can take this aspect of “Harakiri” and come up with many parallels in our own corners of society, where inflexibility and hierarchical nature prevails.

                                             The script and dialogues writtten by Shinobu Hashimoto (wrote the script for Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”, “Ikiru”, etc) and Yasuhiko Takiguchi matches the ferocity and preciseness of the direction. The dialogues Tsugumo speaks to recall the fate of his daughter’s family gives us a hard time holding back the tears and at other times, they sharply blend in old Japanese sayings (“The suspicious mind conjures its own demons” – what an insightful line!).  Tatsuya Nakadai’s central performance as Tsugumo doubles the fierce strength of the film. He blends in the fury and tragedy when he narrates each word of his life story. His part exasperated, part sinister laughs (the laugh raises from the guts – the kind which frightens the enemy) and way he holds the sword like a bird ready to fly are some of the iconic Nakadai images. Rentaro Mikuni as Saito has also given a formidable performance, whose expressions exhibit hate and hidden shame in equal proportions.


                                            It would be futile to perceive “Harakiri” aka “Seppuku” (133 minutes) as a samurai movie or as a simple morality tale. Masaki Kobayashi’s masterpiece indicts the perpetual human nature to compromise humanity for preserving hollow ideals.