Karel Kopfrkingl's job is to promote cremation as an alternative to burial. He's certainly sold himself on the idea. He wants to convince others, everyone if possible, that cremation takes away the fear of death. Influenced by a book about Tibetan Buddhism, he claims that the soul is freed from the body by burning, in case people are troubled by the idea of laying and rotting in the earth. Karel sees himself as an enlightened, sensitive man. He promotes his tastes in classical music nearly as hard as he does cremations. How can you not like the beautiful sounds? He lives in Czechoslovakia in the year of doom, 1938. His bit of German blood may benefit him in the new order to come, but a bit of Jewish blood in his wife, and in his son, might hurt his chances of becoming the crematorium manager. Also, things will be bad for wife and son once the Nazis take over. They will suffer, surely. What is the sensitive, the enlightened thing to do to spare them that suffering?
You'd think that with such a historically specific setting and literal Nazis in the background driving events along, a Communist regime would have little problem even with such a disturbing picture as Juraj Herz's Cremator. But the Czech regime of 1969 had been imposed upon the country by force following the Soviet suppression of the "Prague Spring" the previous year, and in general Marxist-Leninists haven't been comfortable with disturbing, at least in movies. I suppose they must have felt that a film set amid a recent takeover by foreigners would inspire unwelcome analogies. But once we step back from the historical situation at the time of its release -- according to Wikipedia it was banned yet submitted as the Czech entry for the Academy Awards -- we can appreciate that the horror at the heart of Herz's picture transcends politics and ideology. Kopfrkingl's a sick ticket well before the Nazis show up, though it's only after that he starts implementing his own personal final solution, years ahead of the Germans, to the problem of existence.
Playing the title role, Rudolf Hrušinský gives one of the creepiest performances ever, part Charles Laughton, part Peter Lorre, but mainly a disquieting portrayal of sociopathic detachment. As his salesmanship takes a murderously messianic turn, Karel sees himself as a living Buddha, an alternate Dalai Lama, a savior of the world. In his delusion, Hrušinský doubles as a robed monk announcing Karel's elevation to spiritual leadership -- do you suppose the same guy visited Steven Seagal? -- and tempting him from the other dream figure in his life, a dark-haired woman who could well represent Death. Maybe she's a more benign ideal of it, but it's definitely one he abandons at the film's surreal close, even as she runs after his car in the rain. Is he envisioning that? Symbolism aside, Kopfrkingl's presumption of enlightenment exacerbates his detachment and awakens an antinomian streak in him, though it's less likely that he sees himself as above the law than that he no longer sees the law. But the man's been creepy all along, from the way he droningly lectures everyone about the virtues of cremation to the way that he insists that a portrait of a Nicaraguan leader (bought for the frame at a frame shop) is actually a French cabinet officer to the way he compulsively combs other people's hair (including the dead), then runs the comb through his own hair. Watch as many outright horror films as you can this season and you probably won't see a more quietly disquieting performance.
Herz directs at a slow burn pace, making the picture look like many another Czech New Wave comedy with its "people are goofy" attitude and dragging a running gag with an impatient husband and a "crazy" wife through the story. At the same time, he edits the movie to reflect Kopfrkingl's detachment, often cutting in what seems like the middle of one of his speeches to what proves to be another time and location. At the very end, for Karel's final attack and subsequent apotheosis, the direction rises to its subject's delirium, and so does the remarkable score by Zdeněk Liška. In simplest terms, The Cremator portrays a man's mental and moral breakdown. Leave considerations of history or ideology aside, and if you can follow that simple thread, Spalovač mrtvol may reward you with a sensation of true horror.