A very odd film, which isn't news to the many fans who have made it a cult classic over the years. From what I knew, I expected an arty horror film, and that's not entirely incorrect. But while The Cremator is creepy from the start, it goes in a direction which makes sense in the end but which I didn't anticipate at first.
Rudolf Hrušínský plays the title character, Kopfrkingl, a man who runs a crematorium and has some big ideas about expanding his business. Hrušínský is the reason the film is creepy from the start ... he plays the cremator as if Peter Lorre's character from M somehow managed to fit into polite society. Much of the movie is taken with Kopfrkingl philosophizing about his job, inspired by Tibetan Buddhism. Hrušínský gives an otherworldly performance, and the dialogue by Juraj Herz (from a novel by Ladislav Fuks) gives Hrušínský plenty of opportunity to impress. The look of the film (Stanislav Milota is the cinematographer) is suitably disturbing, in line with the musings of Kopfrkingl.
The film takes place in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, during the rise of the Third Reich. The gradual move by Kopfrkingl towards Nazism is a bit hard to believe at first, but by the end of the film, Hrušínský convinces us that the combination of Kopfrkingl's occupation, his Buddhist tendencies, and his growing madness lead inexorably towards the ultimate horror, a horror made somehow even worse by the way Kopfrkingl comes to think of himself as the next Dalai Lama.
The Cremator is unsettling, and its various comedic touches might convince some that Herz isn't really serious here, that it's "just a horror movie". But it's horror where subtext becomes text, and it's a movie you won't soon forget.