Juraj Herz’s SPALOVAČ MRTVOL (1968): The Psychological Horror of Totalitarianism
This article on Czechoslovak dark drama film Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator) is courtesy of our today’s special guest writer David A.J. Reynolds. David is a British writer, editor, and teacher. Currently based in Illinois, he has lived and taught in Hungary and the Czech Republic.
“Suffering is a great evil and we must do all we can to alleviate it.” This is Mr. Kopfrkingl’s mantra, repeated in his manicured and careful tone throughout Spalovač mrtvol. But Kopfrkingl, mesmerizingly played by Rudolf Hrušínský, is not a doctor or a philanthropist but a cremator. And the suffering he is eerily focused on alleviating is the travail of souls trapped in bodies. “We live in a good humanitarian state which provides crematoria,” he exults before a home-town audience in Prague, “to give people a chance to turn quietly into dust after the tribulations of life.”
As the movie begins, it is early 1938 and the army of Hitler’s Germany is poised on the borders of the so-called Sudetenland, ready to take control of German-majority areas of Czechoslovakia. But shooting the film, exactly thirty years after these real events, director Juraj Herz was experiencing a unique liberation. The artistic freedom and lack of censorship that characterized the heady days of the Prague Spring meant that Herz was for the first time free to film as he pleased. “The only film that’s the way I wanted it is Spalovač mrtvol,” Herz commented years later.[i]
But even as Herz enjoyed this creative liberty, storm clouds were once again gathering over his native Czechoslovakia. Almost in parallel to the full German occupation that develops in Spalovač mrtvol, Soviet tanks rolled into Herz’s 1968 Prague, bringing the shoot to a temporary halt while the pro-reform Hrušínský hid from possible arrest. When the film’s lead returned to work, his task was still to play a man who, conversely, seems preternaturally immune to the crucible of dilemma.
It soon becomes clear that Kopfrkingl’s pathologically aesthetic sensitivity is something more disturbing. Under the influence of a former Habsburg army comrade, Reinke (Ilja Prachař), Kopfrkingl shifts—almost imperceptibly to himself—into the arms of racial German nationalism and “the party” (the word “Nazi” is never used in the film). While Kopfrkingl’s uncanny susceptibility to suggestion allows Reinke to lead him, it is his own imperturbable love of death and incineration that is key to the horrific actions he calmly unfolds.
Yet the horror of Spalovač mrtvol is not in dark deeds or even in the coffins and corpses that pervade the film, but in the unerring ability of Kopfrkingl to conceive of and portray evil as good and heartless murder as salvific mercy. It is this perversion of our notions of morality that is at the heart of both good “psychological horror”[ii] and totalitarian regimes. As Hannah Arendt noted in the early sixties, “evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it – the quality of temptation.”[iii] When evil is done with notions of dutiful humanitarianism, good is an illicit snare.
It is no accident, therefore, that Spalovač mrtvol—despite being a microcosm of the Holocaust—is regarded as an indictment of the Communist totalitarianism that was re-imposed while the film was shot and released. The director certainly saw it in that light. In fact, after the Soviet occupation, Herz made a new ending to the film set in the present in which the adaptable Kopfrkingl smiles contentedly amid the sadness of Soviet-occupied Prague. The studio director refused to include it in the final cut. “This is a movie about a conformist,” Herz concluded.
And yet Kopfrkingl is not a typical conformist. He bears no resemblance to Vaclav Havel’s prototypical greengrocer, whose display of the “Workers of the World, Unite!” slogan only reveals his pragmatic acquiescence with an official truth he does not believe.[iv] Kopfrkingl’s chilling conformity creeps down your spine because of its unblinking, delusional sincerity.
In the first months after the Soviet invasion of August 1968, the suppression of expression moved slowly. The Soviets were surprised by their inability, even as they occupied the country, to impose a hard-line government. Instead the foreign power and its local collaborators gradually undermined reformers in the Czechoslovak government until they could be fully removed in April, 1969. With that, the freedom of expression that had allowed Spalovač mrtvol to be made came completely and decisively to an end.[v] It was unfortunate timing for the film, which had just been released.
The film was soon removed from the cinemas and with it ended a remarkable decade of creativity and risk in Czech literature and film. A sterile neo-Stalinist blanket descended over Czechoslovakia. Horror morphed into black comedy. In Ladislav Fuks’ 1967 novel on which Spalovač mrtvol is based (Fuks also co-wrote the screenplay with Herz), Kopfrkingl glimpses the awful fruit of his labour for “the Fuhrer’s new Europe”. Ironically reflecting on the post-war transition to new dictatorship, Fuks has Kopfrkingl promise another utopia that really will end suffering this time.[vi] The hollowed husk of a decrepit utopianism was all that was left of Communism after the Prague Spring. And there was no room for a while in Czechoslovak cinema for horror. Reality was too absurd for that.
[i] Ivana Košuličová, “Drowning the bad times: Juraj Herz interviewed,” Kinoeye (Vol 2 Issue 1, 7 Jan 2002): http://www.kinoeye.org/02/01/kosulicova01.php.
[iii] Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin: New York, 1963), 150.
[iv] Václav Havel, “Power of the Powerless,” in Open Letters (Faber and Faber: London, 1991), 132.
[v] Alexander Dubček, Hope Dies Last: the Autobiography of Alexander Dubček, trans. Jiri Hochman (Kodansha: New York, 1993).
[vi] Peter Hames, Czech and Slovak Cinema: Theme and Tradition (Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2009).