Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 1 
7 Jan
2002

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Juraj Herz's Spalovac mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968)STRACH: CZECH HORROR
To excess
The grotesque in
Juraj Herz's Czech films

Herz has worked in a wide range of styles, but in all of them he has flaunted the fantastic and indulged in visual and narrative excess. Daniel Bird reviews his Czech career.


Since 1966, Juraj Herz has directed over 30 films for film and television, forming a body of work constituting a dense exploration of the fantastic. Herz is primarily known in the West for a brilliant, nauseous black comedy, Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968). However, the director's filmography encompasses a wide range of genres: Morgiana (1971) and Upír z Feratu (The Vampire of Ferat, 1981) can be classified as horror; in Panna a netvor (Beauty and the Beast, 1978) Froschkönig (The Frog King, 1990) and Dis dumme Augustine (The Dumb Augustine, 1992) he adopts the formal trappings of the fairytale; Pasáž (Passage, 1998) is an exercise in the absurd; and Znamení raka (The Sign of Cancer, 1966) is a warped detective story. More recently (1994 and 1995), he has made two French films in the Maigret series about the eponymous police inspector, and there is even a burlesque musical to his credit, Kulhavý ďábel (The Limping Devil, 1967).

Outside the New Wave

Herz's palette is predominantly grotesque, and, as in the films of Fellini (described by Herz as his "only love") and more recently Alexei German's Khrustaliev, mashinu! (Khrustaliev, My Car! 1998), visual and narrative excess becomes a formal strategy. Expressionist madness is played as comedy in Spalovač mrtvol; in Morgiana, the doppelganger device is loaded to the point of absurdity; whilst themes of social decadence and moral decay are played out of a physically sick body in Petrolejové lampy (Oil Lamps, 1971).

Herz possesses a somewhat precarious place in film history: he is a Slovak known for his work in Prague, though since his emigration in the late 1980s the majority of his films have been made in Germany. However, Herz's "Czech" films are generally disassociated from the New Wave, for, on the one the one hand, the emergence of Herz as a major filmmaker came after the Prague Spring with the release of Spalovač mrtvol in 1969, and, on the other hand, his work lacks the political bite of, for example, Jan Němec or Věra Chytilová's films, favoring, as the Czech author Josef Škvorecký puts it, the "time machine" or period drama.

Juraj Herz's Morgiana (1971)
The last film of the New Wave?

However, within those constraints, two of Herz's subsequent films, Petrolejové lampy and Morgiana, made immediately after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, are in no sense compromised. For example, Herz encouraged cinematographer Jaroslav Kučera to continue the colorful photographic experimentation of Chytilová's Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966) and Ovoce stromů rajských jíme (The Fruit of Paradise, 1969) in Morgiana, resulting in the film being described as the "last" film of the New Wave.

Herz himself stated that he feels little sense of belonging to the Wave, but rather a kinship with Evald Schorm and the late Jarmoil Jireš. Like Schorm and Jireš, Herz contributed to, as Josef Škvorecký put it, "manifesto of the Czech New Wave": the portmanteau adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal stories Perličky na dně (Pearls of the Deep, 1965). Herz's episode, however, was later excluded, along with Ivan Passer's, to reduce the running time. Unlike Schorm and Jireš, Herz did not attend FAMU, the film and television faculty at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (Akademie múzických umění, Praha; AMU).

Conversely, Herz's formal training began, like that of Jan Švankmajer (an exact contemporary of Herz, both being born on 4 September 1934) by studying puppetry at the theatre faculty of AMU between 1954 and 1958. Like two of the most famous New Wave luminaries, Jiří Menzel and Miloš Forman (not to mention Švankmajer), Herz was first employed at the Semafor Theatre. If Švankmajer later dismissed the Semafor theatre in an interview with Peter Hames for discarding avant-garde approaches to the proto-surrealist librettos of Vitezslav Nezval and Jiří Mahen, he nonetheless employed Herz as an actor in his debut film, Poslední trik pana Schwarcewaldea a pana Edgara (The Last Trick of Mr Schwarzwald and Mr Edgar, 1964). The final stage of Herz's apprenticeship ended with a stint as an assistant director at Barrandov Studios, working on Zbyněk Brynych's Transport z raje (Transport to Paradise, 1962) and several Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos films, most notably Obchod na korze (The Shop on the High Street, 1965).

A conclusion, perhaps, to be drawn Herz's biography is that attention to key filmmakers in the New Wave—Němec, Chytilová, Menzel, Forman and Schorm—hinge upon auteur principles at the expense of the broader cultural context of not only music and literature but also the graphic and tactile arts, as well as puppetry and mime. The role of Hrabal, as well as that of Milan Kundera as literary consultant at FAMU, haven't gone unnoticed. However, in terms of dictating the shape and rhythm of countless New Wave films in post-production, Zdeněk Liška's music has received comparatively little attention.

Whilst it is unimaginable to separate elements of graphic art and puppetry from Švankmajer's films, the consistency of Ester Krumbachová's rich contribution to the general aesthetic of the New Wave through costume and décor has never been given the attention it deserves. With the benefit of hindsight, it's now unimaginable to consider Chytilová's filmography without incorporating not just feminism but elements of both mime and avant-garde theatre. Therefore, in what follows—a brief summary of Juraj Herz's Czech films (at their most grotesque)—it makes sense to treat Herz as a polymath, a filmmaker who has adopted a bricolage approach to filmmaking, incorporating elements of music, theatre and puppetry.

Individuals in an uncivil world
Juraj Herz's Spalovac mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968)
A blunt instrument in the power of a deranged mind

Based on the novel of the same name by Ladislav Fuks, Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968) is set during the war years, before and after the signing of the Munich agreement. The Nazi occupying force capitalizes upon the dreams of bourgeois family life, not to mention the conformist tendencies, of an increasingly deranged cremator, Karl Kopfrkingl. Impressed by National Socialism, or rather realizing a vested business interest, Kopfrkingl not only ups the productivity of his crematorium (which is soon to be put to use by the Nazi's anyway)but also goes about the ritual murder of his wife (hanging her "as if she were a Christmas decoration") and son upon learning of their Jewish blood.

Besides rhyming the progressive Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia with Kopfrkingl's descent into madness, as Peter Hames points out, the Jewish theme links Spalovač mrtvol with the films Herz worked on as an assistant, Transport z raje and Obchod na korze as well as Němec's Démanty noci (Diamonds of the Night, 1964) . Along with Alfréd Radok's Daleká cesta (The Long Journey, 1949), such films are broadly existential in that they are concerned with the fate of individuals defined in terms of actions in an uncivil world. Herz's film offers a perverse, cynical twist, equating survival with conformity. The timing of the release of Spalovač mrtvol was uncanny, less than a year after the invasion of another regime in which conformists were also most required.

Excess lies at the intersection between Herz's absurdist, blackly comic subject matter, and his formal execution. Nauseating humor is the product of grotesque exaggeration, both thematic and stylistic. As in Němec's O slavnosti a hostech (The Party and the Guests, 1966), the absurdity of Spalovač mrtvol is thrown up by the incongruity of misapplied action.

Juraj Herz's Spalovac mrtvol (The Cremator, 1968)
Warped vision: unsettling plot and wide-angle lenses

As if concentrating "the Final Solution" to a bourgeois funeral parlor was not enough, Herz distorts bodies further through the use of disorientating tracking shots, knock-out fish-eye lenses—enough even to rival Juraj Jakubisko's equally warped Zbehovia a pútnici (The Deserter and the Nomads, 1968). Even the credit sequence breaks down bodies into unrecognizable fragments, which are then concentrated and subjected to surrealist collage reconstitution. A pre-credit sequence features a camp of another kind, this time involving animals, the close-ups of which are eerily cut to the female vocal on another excellent Liška soundtrack.

If Liška's music hinges on the idea of the voice of a woman symbolizing death (a brunette which Herz leaves curiously mute for much of the film), then music and death are inextricably linked in Spalovač mrtvol. After all, music is the only hint of spirituality during the "final journey" in Kopfrkingl's crematorium, (he favors Dvořák, though his tastes are more generally Germanic). Herz even goes so far as to label two minor characters (one German, the other Czech) as Strauss and Dvořák—the latter played by Jiří Menzel.

Kopfrkingl's opening speech on "the good humanitarian state" (that so impresses a Nazi engineer, Reinke) condemns victims of sexually transmitted diseases, in addition, that is, to regaling the imperative nature of disposing of evil and suffering by simply incinerating the perpetrators in a mere 75 minutes. To Kopfrkingl, a physically ill body is the symptom of a corrupt or decadent society. Reinke offers the Nazi solution: Kopfrkingl should get rid of his wife in exchange for access to the company brothel, where only blonde girls are allowed.

Another slip into insanity

After directing an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's Little Fly for Slovak Televison, Sladké hry minulého léta(Sweet Games of Last Summer, 1969), Herz's subsequent two films, Petrolejové lampy and Morgiana, form a suite in which the director casts a liberal eye on decadence, in terms of behavior, period and décor.

Juraj Herz's Petrolejové lampy (Oil Lamps, 1971)The literary origins of Petrolejové lampy (Oil Lamps, 1971) were considerably less abrasive than those of Spalovač mrtvol. Though Jaroslav Havlíček's novel is clearly not in the Socialist Realist tradition, as Škvorecký points out, the fact that he'd been dead since 1943 and had therefore not got himself involved in any counter-revolutionary films (as Kundera had, for example) ensured that Herz's production of Petrolejové lampy proceeded relatively smoothly. Opening at the very end of 19th century, Petrolejové lampy is a romantic, if pessimistic, tale of a girl, Štěpa (played by Iva Janžurová), who falls in love with a bitter solider, Pavel (Petr Čepek), against her families wishes.

As with Spalovač mrtvol, the decadent thematic content of Herz's film has a visual resonance. A thirst for beer, as well as a shocking wardrobe of orange gowns epitomizes Štěpa's indulgences or liberation. The general design of Petrolejové lampy takes its cue from the prints of Alphonse Mucha.

The relationship between Štěpa and Pavel is anything but simple. Stepa becomes jealous of the sexual attention Pavel lavishes on her inferior, Magda the servant girl. However, Štěpa is also aware that Pavel has infected Magda with syphilis, the disease which has prompted his leave from the Austrian army. The sequence is voyeuristic, realistic and brutal, anything but romantic. As Peter Hames notes, Magda is just an object for Pavel. Pavel is brother later physically attacks Magda. Magda dies as Pavel slips gradually into insanity, and Štěpa's final encounter with her love is in an institution. Pavel's left foaming at the mouth tearing away at his own clothes. Štěpa has been left to look after the house of Pavel's father, which is falling further into disrepair. Petrolejové lampy ends on an ambiguous note, with Stepa befriending a child who, unknown to her, is Pavel's daughter.

Two sisters

Herz's next film, Morgiana (1971), is something of a companion piece to Petrolejové lampy, though stylistically it even rivals the excesses of Spalovač mrtvol. Based on the story "Jessie and Morgiana" by Aleksandr Grin, the "Russian Edgar Allan Poe", Morgiana is the story of two sisters, Klára and Viktoria. The setting is "Grinland," a hermetic world of decadent excess stranded somewhere between the mid 19th and early 20th century.

Juraj Herz's Morgiana (1971)
The lost world of Aleksandr Grin

Upon their father's death, Klára, the good girl, gets the house, where as Viktoria, the bad one, gets a pokey lodge. Klára's blonde, popular with the soldiers, if a little boring, whilst Viktoria is ugly, sadistic, bursting with hate and jealousy. If Viktoria contented herself with clawing out the eyes of a doll made up to look like Klára as a child, now she enacts her revenge by poisoning her. If Herz used orange to extenuate decadent elements in Petrolejové lampy, in Morgiana orange is associated with the madness brought on Klára by her sister's slow-acting poison. Klára sees a double of herself in a dazzling orange dress, and faints at the sight of fruit on the table. Viktoria's impatience manifests itself when she brutally stones a servant girl bathing in the sea, and she is later blackmailed by the woman who sold her the poison used to kill Klára.

Juraj Herz's Morgiana (1971)
Hallucinatory experience

Morgiana ends with an explicit nod to Spalovač mrtvol, with Viktoria staging her own suicide, an act which goes terribly wrong. Whereas Viktoria planned to have the servant girl rush to her hanging body (her final gasps for breath are left silent when her cat, Morgiana, edges through the window, bringing a draft which sends the door shut. Herz then cheats terribly and reveals that the poison wasn't terminal after all, and Klára returns to good health, much to the surprise of her vampire-like nurse and dismissive doctor.

Kučera's "cat's eye" camerawork is particularly fun, as are the prism effects that simulate Klára's hallucinations first in the villa, then (most spectacularly) a gambling den, and finally a forest. If Klára's poison marks a temporary slide into madness, the Viktoria's sick mind is emphasised by a grotesque body. Prior to her successful suicide act, Viktoria removes her wig to reveal a matted, cropped balding head. Luboš Fišer's pounding, repetitive score bludgeons any subtleties left in Herz's direction.

Lacking discipline

Poster for Juraj Herz's Pasaz (Passage, 1998)Herz emigrated to Germany in 1987, but he returned to the Czech Republic to direct the international co-production Pasáž (Passage, 1998), an adaptation of a Kafkaesque novel by Karel Pecka, first published in 1976. Herz described how he had been instantly attracted to Pecka's novel, going as far as to say that nothing had interested him so much since discovering Spalovač mrtvol: "In Pecka's book, I felt moments that were fantastic, drastic, erotic, mysterious, real as well as fictitious." There's no question of Herz being able to film Pasáž any earlier. Pecka enduring 11 years of imprisonment between 1949 and 1960 for distributing political pamphlets. During the 1960s only a few of his novels could be published in his homeland, the majority being printed in Toronto.

Juraj Herz's Pasaz (Passage, 1998)
Alluring smile

Pasáž opens like Otto e mezzo (Fellini's 8 1/2, 1963) in a traffic jam, though in the rain. Forman (Jacek Borkowski) leaves his broken-down car and heads for an underground entrance. A small girl casts a smile and lures him inside. Inside a toilet he encounters a beautiful blonde prostitute (Małgorzata Kozuchowska) with wicked red heels who screws her clients to death. Following after the little girl, Forman is soon trapped in a labyrinth of shops. It's now past midnight, and Forman exchanges his identity papers for a key giving him access to all areas of the underground.

After running into a dead school friend, Forman witnesses himself hours before on the cinema screen and then goes on to have hot sex with the prostitute who is now a simple flower-seller. Just as the viewer decides that Forman must be insane, Herz ends the film where it began, except this time he reveals Forman to be an actor in a film about his own recent experiences. As the director has said, "I enjoy playing with reality and fiction, with the film as an illusion as well as with the film as a reality. I like the story to end in some way and a certain doubt to creep in with the final full-stop."

Juraj Herz's Pasaz (Passage, 1998)
Forman's vision of himself

Whilst unquestionably spectacular, Pasáž lacks the discipline that governed the excesses of Herz's earlier films. One factor is a rather weak score by Zdeněk Merta—definitely no Liška.

Ironically, while Herz never experienced the full wrath of the censors of the Czech authorities (unlike Jakubisko, Němec and Chytilová) his later work has, by his own admission, suffered under the influence of television editors, producers, not to mention financiers in the West. However, Herz's outlook is positive, though one inflected by the sentiment that if the Western marketplace is based upon freedom, then that freedom often fails to provide talented producers, actors or scriptwriters.

Daniel Bird

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Also of interest
About the author

Daniel Bird is a freelance writer and film programmer based in Britain. His book on Roman Polanski will be published in April 2002.

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