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Juraj Herz's Spalovac mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968)STRACH: CZECH HORROR
A Czech cinema
of the Gothic

Juraj Herz's Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968)
and Morgiana (1971)

If there is a Czech cinema of the Gothic, then the work of Juraj Herz should be considered as a distinctive and central example. What has been written on Czech cinema has tended to stress its surreal nature and has attempted to label certain films as horror. The dark fairy tales of Jan Švankmajer have received much critical attention and been widely celebrated. As a recent programme of films organised by the London Czech Centre, entitled "Down to the Cellar,"[1] demonstrated, however, Švankmajer is but one of a group of Czech filmmakers and animators—including Jiří Svoboda, Karel Zeman and F A Brabec—who have similar interests. The season, held at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, was partly subtitled "Horror and Fantasy," and in the accompanying documentation other terms were introduced such as "expressionist," "tale of terror," "Surrealist-inspired," "dark and horrific," "black medieval" and "fairytale." Only once—in the summary for Herz's 1971 film Morgiana—is the word "gothic" employed.

These examples of Czech cinema are, I would argue, much better defined as Gothic than as horror or fantasy. Of course, there are points where the terms are inseparable, but the Gothic itself suggests so much more. In an interview with Kinoeye, Herz states that "the typical horror film is a chainsaw massacre."[2] Moving beyond the simple idea of horror to a consideration of the Gothic introduces issues of psychosis and irrationality, seduction, excess, hallucination and the unconscious or subconscious mind. Such themes are present in a number of Herz's films—Petrolejové lampy (Oil Lamps, 1970), Upír z Feratu (The Vampire of Ferat, 1981) and Pasáž (Passage, 1997). They are also developed in Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968) and Morgiana, two films on which I would like to concentrate.

Administrators of death

The demonic, death-obsessed figure at the centre of Spalovač mrtvol, Karl Kopfrkingl, is the operator of a crematorium in the early stages of the planned Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. The increasingly delusional Kopfrkingl— wonderfully portrayed by Rudolf Hrušínský—is a disturbing figure who is reminiscent of, yet far exceeds, the most unctuous of characters portrayed by actor Peter Lorre. In a Hitchcockian sequence, Kopfrkingl visits a fairground with his family, yet he is clearly unhappy when all around him are merry.

It is only when Kopfrkingl enters the tent housing the chamber of horrors waxworks, which depict a series of horrific true crimes, that his face beams. But again, he is alone, his pleasure in this experience existing beyond the stunned expressions of the captivated crowd. As the viewer is led further into Kopfrkingl's irrational world view—one that is fuelled by his business ambitions, the seduction of National Socialism and, ultimately, his dark desires for highly efficient mass cremation—his mental state appears detached and unbalanced, a hypnotic experience which is also one effect of a film that often employs a distorting camera lens and a series of extreme close-ups.

Morgiana, in which the wicked Viktoria—another administrator of death— dispenses a slow-acting poison to her better-liked sister, Klára (both sisters are played by the same actress, Iva Janžurová), establishes hallucinatory passages in which the viewer shares the latter's induced sense of disorientation. As the poison takes effect, Klára appears as a figure that is neither completely dead nor completely alive, fighting death but disconnected from reality. The irregular image is part of this film's disharmony, where vision is unfamiliar (as for instance in the use of a subjective camera to represent the sight of a watchful feline), uncanny (Klára's multiplied image in a mirror) or displaced (Viktoria's delightfully evil admission that the Klára-like doll she was given as a child is abandoned in the attic, its eyes plucked out).

Aleksandr Grin, "Russia's Edgar Allan Poe," wrote the story Jessie and Morgiana upon which the film was based. Morgiana, Viktoria's Siamese cat, is like Poe's own feline protagonist in "The Black Cat," Pluto, a companion through its master's derangement and torment and, ultimately, a marker of death. Poe's Pluto exasperates his master, which results in the axing of his wife and later the accidental entombing of the cat with the body. In contrast, at the end of Herz's film, Morgiana's entrance into a room causes a draught that closes a door, which prevents a servant from seeing and intervening in Viktoria's elaborately staged suicide. Viktoria had planned things so that upon hanging herself she would be immediately rescued, but her all-seeing cat prevents her death from being observed; whereas the entombed and wailing Pluto, a cat with one of its eyes cruelly removed, informs a group of investigating policeman as to where the murdered wife can be found.

Obsession and control

An elaborately planned hanging also occurs in Spalovač mrtvol. Kopfrkingl desires the death of his wife Lakmé (Vlasta Chramostová), and he easily entices her to place her neck in the noose dangling in their bathroom. The prolonged construction of the hanging, as in Morgiana, appears bizarre. Part of the excess of the moment in both cases is the heavily-composed images of the scenes of death. The domestic spaces in Morgiana are opulent, finely textured and richly coloured. There are similarities with Jean Rollin's Gothic horror film Fascination (1979), but also with Roger Corman's Poe adaptation The Masque of the Red Death (1964), in which vivid colours are used to express the subconscious mind.

The bathroom in Spalovač mrtvol is clinically white and completely tiled, like an expensive death chamber or preparation room that can be easily washed free of any guilt. Derek Jarman's white-tiled set for Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) startled with its production of a cold slate against which the possessed nuns appear hysterical. The bathroom in Spalovač mrtvol is equally dramatic, but in an opposite way, with the set so striking for the very ordered manner of the hanging and the way in which Kopfrkingl appears in total control.

Like Viktoria, Kopfrkingl is a character who desires control and must eradicate any possible threats or impurities. The presentation of order is, of course, a sham. Kopfrkingl proudly explains the process that allows for a controlled and respectable cremation, yet he murders his own son, bludgeoning him with an iron bar, and dumps him in a coffin shared with an impeccably presented corpse. Presentation and appearance are of the utmost importance for Kopfrkingl—a gallery of framed pictures adorn his home and, despite many attempts to find the best location for a new purchase, such is the excessive display that each seems lost against the other.

Kopfrkingl's fastidiousness is very much apparent in the obsessive manner with which he neatly combs his hair, though the same comb is used to tidy the hair of the deceased—a grotesque exchange—as well as the hair of his feeble son. Kopfrkingl's hair is repeatedly groomed; Viktoria's is a permanent elaborate coiffure. Kopfrkingl's comb is tainted in its contact with death; Viktoria's apparently abundant hair is revealed to be a wig disguising a balding head. Following his wife's hanging, Kopfrkingl neatly ties her undone shoelace, an absurd attention to detail and an obsessive concern for perfection which Herz himself at times displays in his exquisitely composed images.

In both Spalovač mrtvol and Morgiana, the extreme physical violence traditionally associated with cinematic horror (so often resulting in repulsive images of open wounds, spilt blood and broken bones), especially as generically coded in the West, is minimized. Instead, Herz concentrates his directorial energies on elaborating the psychological disturbance of his malevolent protagonists, one sign of which is their irrational (even pathological) desire for control over their environment and the dead or soon-to-be-dead bodies within it. Attention to such features of his work allows for a distinction to be drawn between Herz's pure Gothic sensibility and that of horror-proper, and helps to explain why Herz—often thought of as a Czech "horror" film-maker—would eschew such a label, even when it is meant as a compliment.

Ian Conrich

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Also of interest
About the author

Ian Conrich is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at University of Surrey Roehampton, an editor of the Journal of Popular British Cinema and Series Editor for the Kakapo Books publications "Studies in New Zealand Culture." He has written extensively on film and culture for the journals Sight and Sound, p.o.v. and Anglofiles, and he is co-editor of the forthcoming The Technique of Terror: The Films of John Carpenter (Flicks Books) and Horror Zone: The Cultural Experience of Contemporary Horror Cinema (Verso).

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1. "Down to the Cellar: Horror and fantasy in the Czech cinema," 23-25 November 2001, Riverside Studios, London. return to text

2. See "Drowning the bad times," in this issue of Kinoeye.return to text

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