Tales of (Extra)ordinary Madness

Błażej Szymankiewicz

Directors of the Czechoslovak New Wave cinema were often inspired by literature. The Cremator, which is based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, is not an exception. This film probably most distinctly breaks the švejkism stereotype of the Czech cinema and culture by looking on Czech movies through the prism of “warm, ironic humor”. Somehow it breaks this stereotype in a double meaning because Rudolf Hrušínský, an actor who played Švejk in the film adaptation of Jaroslav Hašek’s novel, plays the title role here as well. However, the present article is not about the performances and roles but mainly about the topic of the film.

The titled cremator is Karl Kopfrkingl who is working in crematory in Prague. He seems to be a perfect father and husband, a real family man and an ideal citizen, who simply loves his job. On every occasion he has, he claims the superiority of cremation over the regular burial. He would be harmless eccentric and pedant man if he did not make an ideological case out of his job. The Nazis, who are growing in power in the Czech Republic, are going to use Kopfrkingl by giving him an offer he cannot refuse.

This film by Slovak director is a precise study of madness and evil emerging in a man. Herz presents an unimaginable, yet probable, story. How is it possible that calm and respectful family man, a lover of art and classical music, becomes a dehumanized Nazi murderer? What the director created is the suggestive image of influence of conformity and ideology on the human mind. Kopfrkingl is a psychopath who believes that there is a method to his madness. In the film, as opposed to the novel, there is no discernable chronology – it gives an impression that the transformation of the main character occurs rapidly. However, from the very beginning of the story there are some signs of his double nature: he calls his wife and introduces himself as Roman, not Karl. He can easily adapt his interpretation of Tibetan Book of the Dead to Nazi murderous ideology. In the film, there is also a scene that is not present in the novel: Kopfrkingl visits brothel, and his favorite prostitute looks exactly like... his wife. Hrušínský played sparingly, not striving for expressiveness and thus making his creation even more realistic. The viewer is also hit by the total subjectivity of narration in which all the characters make up a background to Kopfrkingl’s actions; they are somehow a pretext for the construction of the unstable psyche of the crematorium worker.

During the meeting with a high rank German clerk, Kopfrkingl is standing by the picture hanging on the wall – it’s “Hell”, third part of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. The scene may be trivial but still is significant. It announces the hell on earth that is going to spread out soon by the actions of Kopfrkingl. Herz’s film deals with the theme of evil and human condition; however, it also it has some historiosophical potential. Kopfrkingl considers himself to be the chosen one, who, with the help of the crematorium ovens, will realize the historical mission of liberating the humanity. However, he is just a cog in the great death-machine of the Nazi regime – there were thousands of such chosen ones, and they all were twisted by opportunism and ideology. The hell of war and the Holocaust took place because of their actions.

The Cremator is usually described by the critics as a psychological horror, but the genre eclecticism cannot allow to classify it so simply. Horror, yes, but we will not see here the typical poetics for that genre. Comparing it with the Hitchcock’s thrillers would be more accurate. Psychological – of course, considering the fact that L. Fuks was a psychologist, which probably helped him to construct the main hero of his novel in such convincing way. The Creamtor contains also some grotesque and maybe even macabresque parts. We can discover the character already in introduction, which is very disturbing. There are collages made of the body parts and pictures of faces that are torn apart. The visual side of the film is fascinating from the very beginning.

Cinematographer, Stanislav Milota, created the atmosphere of terror and anxiety with close-up shots and montage sequences. On the one hand, these are mild and easily connected shots, but on the other, they create a sharp, almost snapshot, portrait of the character. Formal and grotesque surrealism reminds me of the early work of Stanley Kubrick. All this resonates with echoes of German (!) Expressionism. Karl and his family’s visit to the panopticon has something in common with Robert Wiene’s caligarism.

Juraj Herz’s film, just like The Ear by Karel Kachyňa, fits perfectly into the mood of contemporary reality. Somehow it is a genre film because it uses clichés and schemes associated with other classic films. But it is, in the same time, very auteur in that it has a very subversive potential and it is probably one of the most anti-conformist Czechoslovak films of all time. The Creamtor brings a universal and powerful warning to the viewers.

"The devil is the most cunning when he says about himself that he does not exist" - states the motto of the Fuks novel, and it does not differ in the case of Kopfrkingl. The director proved that horror films do not need fantastic monsters with spooky stories and old legends to frighten. The resulting assertion is trivial but unfortunately true: the biggest and most terrifying monster is the human being.

The other film which I would like to write about is the piece of art by another Slovak director, Juraj Jakubisko. Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni (Birds, Orphans and Fools) is one of the most subversive and contested films in Czechoslovak cinema. According to the Czech critic Milan Klepikov, it is, both politically and formally, one of the most radical films of the Czech and Slovak New Waves1. Telling the story of Yorick, Andrej and Marta, three young people who are trying to live in absolute freedom and in a crazy hippie way of life, is a clear allegory of the normalization period in Czechoslovakia. It is not the happy-hippie portrait of the young generation, as for example in Miloš Forman’s Hair. Yorick, Andrej and Marta are peculiar Central-European hippies who belong to the lost generation suppressed by the regime and the burden of culture and history. Although they are trying to belong, their lives cannot have anything in common with the Peace and Love slogans. Birds, Orphans and Fools provides a double focus on an eccentric life style – it resonates as a joyful manifesto of life but also sends a shiver down the spine with its skeptical analysis: “The pleasant drug of craziness becomes the indistinguishable poison of madness”2.

Jakubisko’s film is one of those pictures, which have an obscure and strange nature and convey a really dark and depressing feeling. The viewer can be distracted because the first half of the film looks like a crazy comedy, but everything changes with the shocking and gloomy ending, and everything is submerged in surrealistic atmosphere typical of this director. Jakubisko has probably the most distinctive auteur style among the Czechoslovak directors, and this style peaked in the work Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni. From the start of his career, he attracted attention not only through his unbounded imagination and expressive power but also by him testing new possibilities of the cinematic image and an unreasonable straining of the traditional rules of narrative. The director himself confessed: “All that time in school, I struggled with the suspicion that I was unable to make a normal film”3. M. Kaňuch wrote:

“Although Jakubisko, Hanak and Havetta were developing divergent film styles, they all reacted to the new political, social and cultural situation. They avoided recycling the successful film styles of their colleagues of the Czech New Wave. In fiction as well as documentary, they had the courage to reveal fresh points of view fusing the contemporary tendencies of modernist aesthetics with sharp social criticism. Hanak was distinguished by his sophisticated collages of optical and sound images, Jakubisko by bizarre politicized parables and the magical use of spectacle and Havetta by his discovery of the carnival grotesque and impressionistic and luminous imagery.”4

Jakubisko’s style is surely very auteur and exceptional, but his film is also very intertextual. There, we can find many references, associations and borrowings from other films. It can be compared with Shakespearean drama because of its bloody and tragic ending and, of course, the motif of madness. The name Yorick is directly taken form Hamlet. Through décor, behavior and costumes the film refers to characters from Cervantes and Rabelais and also to Sebastian Brant’s Ship of Fools (1494) and Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly (1512). But Jakubisko’s Yorick is, first and foremost, a modern fool governed by way of thinking based on inferiority and worthlessness that encourage his isolation from society5. We can also observe some similarities with the French New Wave style as was described by a Slovak film critic, Mária Ferenčuhová. Formal and narrational searches of Jakubisko refer, in very interesting way, to French movies of the early and mid-sixties. Birds, Orphans and Fools are literally inspired by fragmentary and episodic narration and staccato montage typical of Jean-Luc Godard in his film Pierrot le Fou. Czechoslovak critics often describe Jakubisko as a Slovak Fellini6. The ending of Jakubisko’s film is, both in terms of form as well as narration and poetics, because of identical themes of murder of lover and suicide of the main character, reminiscence of Pierrot le Fou.

Jakubisko has a strong visual side in his works because he studied graphic design. He is also one of the few Slovak directors who has worked as a director of photography at the same time. Visual stylization is very typical of his style. In Birds, Orphans and Fools, the most conspicuous things are the interior shots and specific scene structure and scenes that look exactly like still-life paintings inspired by the XVI and XVII century art. Even the costumes of characters, their poses and dialogs are intertextual borrowings. For example, “the dialogic links to various visual art movements – quoting Dali, paraphrasing Chagall, the original filmic use of not only avant-garde but also visual folk art tendencies”7. It looks like Jakubisko mixed the medieval and renaissance motifs with surrealism and XX century art-style. As Václav Macek and Jelena Paštéková stated, “Havetta is the Breughel of the Slovak cinema, Jakubisko [its] Bosch”8. The music of Zdeněk Liška is also worth our attention. From today’s perspective, almost 50 years later, it looks naive and too sentimental. However, it captures the mood of individual scenes. We can hear some music similar to that of the old firm grotesques, and, in other sequences, a modernistic integration of folk singing and melody draws our attention. The atmosphere of the substantial part of hte film is steeped in folklore and carnival. I think that carnival is a good clue because Jakubisko’s film probably could be interpreted through the Mikhail Bachtin’s theory of carnivalesque.

I believe that in Birds, Orphans and Fools we have a very similar situation to the one in The Cremator – both films are very characteristic and auteurist, with its own style, but also wirh the formal solutions by directors that can be described as intertextual and eclectic. They are not genre films in the literally sense, but they include features from various genres. And they are subversive in their content because their main topic are nonconformism and madness as well as (extra)ordinary madness and absurd of human existence.


Ferenčuhová, M. Film słowacki i jego środkowoeuropejska tożsamość w świecie przemian, Kwartalnik Herito nr 9 (2013).

Hames, P. (ed.), The Cinema of Central Europe, London 2004.

Matla, M. – Németh Vítová, L. (red.), Czechosłowacka Nowa Fala, Poznań 2012.


Herz, J. (Režisér). (1969). Spalovač mrtvol [Film]. Československo: Filmové studio Barrandov.

Jakubisko, J. (Režisér). (1969). Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni [Film]. Československo: Como Film, Štúdio hraných filmov Bratislava.

Mgr. Błażej Szymankiewicz – absolvent filologicko-historického středoevropského makrooboru na Univerzitě Adama Mickiewicze v Poznani (specializace: komparatistika a literární kritika). Nyní doktorand Filozofické fakulty (Ústav sémiotiky literatury) téže univerzity (obor: Literární věda). Zabývá se především středoevropskou literaturou 20. století ve srovnávací perspektivě, dějinami a kulturou střední Evropy.

Kontakt: szymankiewiczblazej@gmail.com

[1] M. Kaňuch, Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni/Birds, orphans and fools, in: The Cinema of Central Europe, ed. Peter Hames, London 2004, p. 165.

[2] Ibidem, p. 168.

[3] M. Kaňuch, Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni/Birds, orphans and fools, in: The Cinema of Central Europe, ed. Peter Hames, London 2004, p. 163.

[4] Ibidem, p. 164.

[5] Ibidem, p. 167.

[6] M. Ferenčuhová, Film słowacki i jego środkowoeuropejska tożsamość w świecie przemian, Kwartalnik Herito nr 9 (2013).

[7] M. Kaňuch, Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni/Birds, orphans and fools, in: The Cinema of Central Europe, ed. Peter Hames, London 2004, p. 170.

[8] M. Kaňuch, Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni/Birds, orphans and fools, in: The Cinema of Central Europe, ed. Peter Hames, London 2004, p. 170.

Mohlo by vás z této kategorie také zajímat