Distorted Perception: Juraj Herz’s The Cremator

| Jeremy Noble |

A man, Karel, places his hand on the back of a woman in the film "The Cremator."

The Cremator plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, March 10 through Sunday, March 12. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.

Warning: plot spoilers below! Proceed at your own risk.

One of my favorite novels is Despair by Vladimir Nabokov. It draws me in every time I read it. Regardless of knowing the plot, I’m mesmerized by the narrative, which is told from the perspective of a deeply misguided protagonist. The novel follows Hermann, a man who elaborately plans the murder of a person he sees as his doppelganger, to stage his own death. The use of the villain as the primary narrator of this story is an effective plot device for me.

In a similar way, The Cremator draws me in by the use of a first-person narrative in which the protagonist is not only unreliable, but also an utterly terrible person. What is it about this narrative structure that I find so appealing? The villain is the most interesting character in many stories. Narratives told from this perspective explore how we understand evil, and what can motivate a human being to perform acts of inhumane cruelty. Through the villain’s experience, we often see a tendency to distort perceptions of reality. These distortions and justifications try to explore how evil happens, and how a neighbor down the street can act out atrocities that we believe we cannot.

A man, Karel, holds a woman's face in his hand in "The Cremator."

The Cremator centers on the narrator and main character, Karel Kopfrkingl, who runs a crematorium while raising a family with his wife in 1930s Czechoslovakia. Throughout the film, we follow his perspective as it adapts and changes to justify his actions. In the opening scene, we get a sense of the type of person Kopfrkingl is as he visits a zoo and says that cages are “for dumb creatures.” This sets the tone of Kopfrkingl’s experience as he navigates the film aided by delusions of grandeur and purpose, justifying his actions by deeming himself to be above “dumb creatures.”

The film then cuts to a gathering where Kopfrkingl establishes his self-assigned moral superiority by forcing his guests to abstain from alcohol and putting out cigars. He then gives a speech about his job as a cremator. Reading from a book of Tibetan mysticism, Kopfrkingl makes the case that his job is actually about freeing souls for the purpose of reincarnation rather than the simple disposing of bodies. Clearly, Kopfrkingl is convinced of his higher purpose, establishing himself as a moral compass and voice of reason.

Kopfrkingl’s perception of reality bends to his need to always be correct. While selecting a painting for his house, he opts for an artwork which, he insists, is by Louis Marin, even though it is labeled as a painting of Emiliano Chamorro, the president of Nicaragua. “Just cover it with some tape,” he says in response to the shopkeeper who corrects him. He refuses to accept corrective evidence, and instead superficially covers up the label. Yet when he returns home with the painting, he correctly introduces it as a painting of the president of Nicaragua. However, later that same day, a dinner guest starts to peel off the tape, at which point Kopfrkingl reverts back to calling it a portrait of Louis Marin. Reality shifts in his perception back and forth to the point where it is only valid if it supports his need to be correct.

As the story further unfolds, the specter of Naziism starts to show itself. Kopfrkingl’s response is to further distort his perception of reality to adapt to the circumstances. For instance, when he visits a carnival and a boxing match with his family, he acts aloof to displays of violence and depictions of gruesome murders. The circumstances of violence and horror do not faze him. This state of distorted perception accelerates when a fellow soldier from Kopfrkingl’s service in World War I convinces him to sympathize with the Nazis. Aloof to the brutality of the war, he is instead taken with the need to establish himself as an important man in the coming regime.

While reporting a Jewish ceremony to his new Nazi contacts, Kopfrkingl finds out that his wife is suspected of being Jewish. We then see a more explicit distortion of reality as Kopfrkingl hangs his wife in their bathroom and sees hallucinatory visions of himself as a Tibetan monk, convincing himself that he is not murdering but liberating her. His vision reassures Kopfrkingl that he will be rewarded by ascending to the position of Dalai Lama.

The rest of the film escalates into a spiral of violence and evil. There is more murder. There is further instruction from Nazi leadership. And yes, there are more visits from the imaginary monk-version of Kopfrkingl. As the film shows this escalation, it still maintains its perspective from the voice of the narrator. We see him even more convinced that he is right, and that he is not a villain or a murderer, but a divine liberator of souls. His serenity and unflappable confidence as he performs atrocities close the film.

A man, Karel, and his family are seen in a convex mirror.

In the end, The Cremator is a study of how one of the ultimate evils of recent history, the rise of Naziism, could happen. Exploring it from the perspective of an evil protagonist is a powerful way of approaching that question. While Kopfrkingl’s visions of himself as a Tibetan monk may be absurd, the core premise of a villain’s distorted perception of reality explains how an otherwise ordinary man can justify evil actions. This narrative device can either reassure us that we are not susceptible to broad distortions of reality, or it can exploit viewers’ empathy to make us wonder whether we ourselves might be seduced by the possibility of illusory justifications for horrifying acts. This uncomfortable juxtaposition of these differing viewer responses is compelling and disturbing at the same time. Can any of us be absolutely certain that we are not susceptible to delusions that could lead to unthinkable horror? How sure are we about the accuracy of our perception? Stories like this make me consider this question, which is as important an exercise for the viewer as it is for the filmmaker.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

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