Brisbane and Czech Gothic Horror

in 13th Brisbane International Film Festival

by Philip Cheah

What would the Dalai Lama think of Juraj Herz’s The Cremator (1968)? Filmed with complete freedom during the Prague Spring of 1968, the film was predictably banned soon after, and is a constant reference in cult horror circles. Yet while the politics of the film (Nazism and Communism) has been oft-discussed, the long surreal dream sequence featuring a Tibetan Rinpoche summoning the protagonist as the reincarnation of the next lama is a real hoot. The Czech Gothic horror series has been often seen in many film programmes but is obviously so good that it deserves to be seen more. Hence, the audience at the 13th Brisbane International Film Festival were treated to a package of seven features and four shorts.

Karl Kopfrkingl runs the local crematorium during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. As the Jewish Holocaust becomes the Nazi’s final solution, Kopfrkingl’s status is suddenly elevated. He also becomes delusional and starts killing off his family members, rationalising that their fate, like that of the Jews, is a more liberating one in death. Towards the end of the film as his delusion increases, the Tibetan Rinpoche begins to appear. Kopfrkingl starts talking about the soul in the afterlife, possibly referring to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The film ends with a picture of Lhasa in Tibet.

So how would the Dalai Lama view the linkage with mass executions and Tibetan monks? Well, considering the Dalai Lama’s considerable sense of humour, he would be chortling through the Cremator as well. In fact, there is one key distinction about Czech horror. They play it for laughs. As Herz once explained: “for me the typical horror film is a chainsaw massacre. And of course, this wasn’t possible to do during the Socialist era. Here we used another Czech attribute ‘svejkovani’… Humour was a way to smuggle the film into approbation and projection.”

Inevitably, Herz’s reference to Kopfrkingl’s servitude to the Nazis is also a satire on conformist Czechs under the Soviets. Three years later with Morgiana (1971), Herz had an ironic moment. When the Czechs banned the film and labelled it as sado-masochistic, they also banned Herz from filmmaking. Herz was saved by the Soviets as Morgiana was based on a book by Aleksandr Grin, considered as Russia’s Edgar Allan Poe. So after two years, he was allowed to make films again. Seen today, Morgiana is amazingly camp. A tale of two sisters (played by the same actress), one of whom attempts to poison the other, the film is distinguished by its psychotic use of colours and is considered as the last film of the Czech New Wave. This was no mean feat as Herz is not generally regarded as part of the Czech New Wave. As Herz once put it: “I wasn’t in the group of “New Wave” directors simply because they didn’t accept me among them. I was in the same year as Jaromil Jires, Jiri Menzel, Evald Schorm and Vera Chytilova, but not at FAMU (the film and TV faculty at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague) but in the puppetry department (of the theatre faculty).

Other gems in the Brisbane festival were Jaromil Jires’ gorgeous Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), the intensely paranoid Zbynek Brynych’s The Fifth Horseman Is Fear (1964) and the nail-biting Jan Svankmajer’s The Pit, the Pendulum and Hope (1983). Oh yeah, and someone vomited behind me near the end of Morgiana. There’s no better statement of film appreciation than that.