11) The Cremator by Ladislav Fuks: A macabre study of descent to the dark side

The Cremator, photo: Czech TV

The Cremator by Ladislav Fuks traces its protagonist’s chilling drift into collaboration and murder – and became the basis for one of the greatest ever Czech films.

The Cremator,  photo: Czech TV
The Cremator,  photo: Czech TV

Ladislav Fuks’s The Cremator tells the story of Karel Kopfrkingl. A proud crematorium operator, Kopfrkingl initially presents himself as an upstanding family man and tells friends he has “but a drop” of German blood.

Later, however, as the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia gathers pace, he abandons all morality – with chilling consequences for his nearest and dearest – without seeming to bat an eyelid.

The macabre and sometimes bizarre 1967 novel (entitled Spalovač mrtvol – literally Incinerator of Corpses – in Czech) was later adapted into a very highly regarded film by director Juraj Herz.

“Don’t worry about the wall chart, Mr. Dvořák. It’s our sort of schedule, a sort of timetable of death. Why, it is, in fact, the most sublime timetable in existence in the world. A timetable nobody can escape, unless he has himself buried in the ground. There the timetable is slightly different, less perfect, longer, because it depends on underground water and living creatures, and not on mechanics. This one,” he pointed to the wall chart, “could embellish a royal chamber or the palace of the ruler of the Himalayas… Well, and now this,” Mr. Kopfrkingl approached the furnace. “What you see here are two thermometers. The first one,” Mr. Kopfrkingl pointed to the first thermometer, “indicates the temperature of the air leaving the recuperator; that’s a machine into which the hot gases are changed into pure, red-hot air. That’s to say, Mr. Dvořák, cremation is done with hot air; neither the coffin nor the body must come into contact with flames, that’s important. There’s even a kind of law about it. Laws, Mr. Dvořák,” Mr. Kopfrkingl gave a kind of smile, “are here to protect people…” (The Cremator, pg. 46, Karolinum, 2016, translation by Eva M. Kandler)

Rajendra Chitnis,  photo: YouTube

I discussed The Cremator with Rajendra Chitnis, an associate professor of Czech at University College Oxford and author of the afterword of the most recent translation.

“When we meet Karel Kopfrkingl he’s on a trip with his family and that is the thing, I think, that Fuks establishes first – that he’s a family man.

“He cares very much about his family.

“We learn quite a lot about him. He likes reading what the Czechs call ‘černá kronika’, the stories of horrible murders and so on in the newspapers.

“He complains about the state of the world – the world makes him very sad.

Source: Karolinum Press publishing house

“And the bright spot for him is the crematorium, with its wonderful timetable, which always works like clockwork.”

His character changes. He goes from being this dutiful father to being somebody capable of awful murder, multiple murders. Does the author explain in any way how this change comes about? I found as a reader that there wasn’t that much insight into why he was changing in the way that he was. He simply says, for example, recently I joined the Sudeten German Party, or the Nazi party.

“My reading of it is that he’s a very superficial man and he’s very suggestible.

“So when he reads the newspapers he tends to say the things he’s just read in the newspapers. We notice quite a lot of that.

“We also notice him quoting particularly this friend Willi; Willi’s words kind of sit in his head and he feels he has to say them again and make them his own.

“We also have this strange feature where he renames everything [laughs].

“He has his own name for his wife, which might be understandable, but there’s also quite a funny scene at the beginning where he arranges to meet a man in a restaurant but gives him a false name of the restaurant [laughs].

The Cremator,  photo: Czech TV

“He lives in this surface world where everything can be renamed, remade.

“And I think he just falls into… I think that’s quite important about the book in a way – there’s no dramatic change, he just sinks into collaboration.

“I think the key thing is that he wants the world to be better, he wants the world to be a nicer place, he wants things to have different names.”

There’s a recurring element of these people who Kopfrkingl runs into at public events. There’s a woman who’s scared of everything and her husband, who says she’s crazy and he can’t take her anywhere. What do you see as the function of these figures? To me, if anything, they make the book even less realistic.

“I think mainly it’s sort of creating this mental state of Kopfrkingl.

The Cremator,  photo: Totalfilm

“There’s a sort of agitation, isn’t there, about the book: He notices too much, he notices too many things.

“And also of course we notice that these characters seem to recur. He keeps seeing the same characters.

“Some of them seem to prefigure. Like the rosy-cheeked girl with the black dress, who possibly prefigures something later.

“I think it’s to destabilise: This is a subjective world that we live in, not an objective one.”

Ladislav Fuks,  photo: Czech TV

Near the end of the novel there’s a strange scene where Kopfrkingl evidently imagines a visit from a Buddhist monk, saying they’re looking for a new dalai lama. Is this part of his fantasy that he’s some kind of a savior?

“Yes. I think so.

“I think that’s the key to the book – this messianic complex, this idea that any one of us can actually make the world better.

“Fuks grew up under different sorts of totalitarianism which believed the world could be made better.

“And it’s a book really about how to resist that temptation, or perhaps how easy it is to give into that temptation.”

Of course The Cremator wasn’t the only book that Fuks wrote set in the period of the occupation. How does it compare to the other works that he produced set in that time?

Source: The Orion Press publishing house

“It’s different in the sense that this is the only book where he writes about a collaborator.

“There are great similarities actually between it and his first novel [Mr. Theodore Mundstock], in which the main character is an elderly Jewish man who knows he’s going to be taken away, to Auschwitz, and he prepares himself for the moment when he has to go.

“But, again, it’s about a very subjective world, an internal world, a very strange world.

“And then there are two autobiographical texts [My Black-Haired Brothers, 1964, and Variations For a Dark String, 1965], which are about Fuks’s own adolescence at the time of the German occupation, which are not translated into English but would be worth translating, I think.”

The Cremator came out in 1967, so over two decades after the end of the war. How was it received?

“I think it was extremely successful.

“It was at a time of great creative freedom and also a time when there was a lot of competition to be good [laughs] – there were a lot of great writers around at that time.

“I think you can feel that in this text.

“It’s artistically extremely ambitious, but of course politically it’s controversial to have a collaborator as the main character – they tend to be secondary characters in Czech literature about the occupation.

“So it was radically politically, radical artistically, and people really enjoyed that. They welcomed that.

“And of course Juraj Herz read it and thought it was fantastic and he wanted to make a film of it – which was also a big success.”

Was it a kind of bombshell at the time that a writer was presenting as his main character a Czech who was a collaborator?

“Yes, I think so.

“I think particularly so because it seems to me that a reader of that time would not only have read this as a book about history but as a book about the present.

The Cremator,  photo: Archive of the Slovak Film Institute

“And in fact this is a book about how does one avoid collaborating, what is collaboration, and is asking sort of universal questions about that, just as Czechoslovakia was emerging from Stalinism.

“So I think its radicalism is not simply in its reinterpretation of how Czechs behaved during the second world war, but actually of how people in general behave when faced with the kind of dilemmas that Kopfrkingl faces.”

Would that have had an especial resonance after ’68, after ’69, with normalisation, when many Czechs, to some degree, were forced into situations that could have been seen, at least by some, as collaboration?

“Yes. And of course most of all for Fuks.

Source: Marion Boyars Publishers

“I don’t think the novel came out again until the 1980s – I think it wasn’t published in the ‘70s, probably for the reasons that you say.

“But at the same time, I think, Fuks himself was seen as a collaborator in the 1970s, because he doesn’t emigrate and he doesn’t join the dissent.

“He carries on publishing and he’s travelling to Israel and lovely places on junkets and so on, representing socialist Czechoslovakia.

“And I think that people then read this novel in that light – and very much saw Fuks exploring the difficulties of his own life, in that way.”

Do you teach The Cremator to students?

“Yes I do, regularly.”

Typically, what grabs them about the book?

“First of all, students always like reading stuff that’s about 20th century Czech history.

“I think that’s a big pull for studying Czech – to understand that experience, and then the broader experience of the continent in the 20th century.

Illustrative photo: congerdesign,  Pixabay / CC0

“I think for a lot of students it’s not typically what you expect from Czech literature.

“We tend to expect The Good Soldier Svejk or possibly the Čapek-style or Kundera-style, I suppose, philosophical writing.

“Again, as I say, it’s quite ambitious artistically, but it’s a different tradition – it’s that kind of baroque, mystical tradition of Czech writing that he fits into.

“So I use it as a way to get them into – and for us to then look at things going back into the 19th century, even the 17th century, that use this kind of style.”

How highly would you rate The Cremator?

“Overall I think Fuks is one of the very few Czech writers who will last.

“I think that people will read these books, and not just The Cremator – it’s one of two or three books he’s written that speak beyond the period in which they were written.

“And in the last 20 years I think Czechs have rediscovered books – and have found all sorts of interesting ways into them – that are not just, as I say about the history.

“So for that reason, yes, I do rate it very highly.”

After dinner, Mr. Kopfrkingl kissed his heavenly one and said:

“Come, my indescribable one, before we undress, let’s get the bath ready.”

He took the chair and they adjourned, the cat watching them.

“It’s hot in here,” said Mr. Kopfrkingl in the bathroom, and placed the chair under the ventilator. “I probably overdid the heating. Switch on the ventilator, my dear.”

When Lakmé got onto the chair Mr. Kopfrkingl stroked her ankle, cast the noose around her neck and said to her with a tender smile, “What if I hanged you, my dear?” (The Cremator, pg. 155, Karolinum, 2016, translation by Eva M. Kandler)

For many the title The Cremator instantly brings to mind not the novel but the impish face of Czech acting great Rudolf Hrušínský, who delivers a chilling performance as Kopfrkingl in the 1969 film adaptation. Director Juraj Herz’s movie was banned by the Communists soon after its release but found new audiences after the Velvet Revolution and is now widely regarded as one of the greatest Czechoslovak films of all time.

Juraj Herz,  photo: Alžběta Švarcová,  Czech Radio

Oxford academic Rajendra Chitnis says there are considerable differences between the novel and the film, which Fuks co-wrote with Herz.

“I think they’re quite different, actually.

“And I would be very fascinated to know more about the relationship between Herz and Fuks in writing it.

“When we see Herz interviewed, he comes across as a man who gets what he wants.

“And, of course, he also had a different personal experience of the second world war to Fuks, because his family were in concentration camps.

“So I think he approached the book differently.

The Cremator,  photo: Czech TV

“I think he actually was slightly frustrated by the book, from what he said about it.

“He wanted to change things about it – and the main thing that he changes is that from the very beginning Kopfrkingl is a bad man.

“When we first see him he’s shown through a fish-eye lens. He’s distorted. He’s strange.

“Hrušínský gives this fantastic performance, which is the centre of the film really, as this sort of Breaking Bad figure, as it were [laughs], 50 years before that series.

“And I think that was different from what Fuks wanted to show us.

“I think Fuks wanted to show us how good becomes evil, whereas the film is a study of evil.”

Source: The Criterion Collection

The film seems to me to be more kind of universal while the book is more specific. I didn’t rewatch the film in total ahead of this interview – I just skipped through it after reading the book recently.

“I would actually disagree with that.

“I think that the novel is probably trying to be more universal.

“I think it’s trying to turn his story allegory of, as I say, good becoming evil.

“Whereas I think the film is much more about the horrors of the occupation and that experience.

“I think that funnily enough it sort of historicises it a bit more, for me.

“The other thing is that the film concentrates much more on trying to show Kopfrkingl as bad man.

“It shows him consorting with prostitutes. It makes much more explicit the reason he visits his doctor regularly – he’s worried about sexually transmitted disease.

“When you then re-read the novel, you could think, Yes, maybe that’s what Fuks meant.

“But it’s not completely clear from the novel that he does those things.

“So, as I say, he’s much more of an immoral character in the film.”

Rudolf Hrušínský in The Cremator,  photo: Czech National Film Archive

I don’t know if you noticed, but a couple of years ago there were t-shirts on sale and tote bags, I think produced by the National Film Archive here, with a picture of Rudolf Hrušínský as Kopfrkingl and the words “How about if I hanged you dear?” It seems to have become part of pop culture almost here.

“I didn’t see that – that’s extraordinary [laughs].

“I find the capacity of Prague and the commercial industry to take everything from Kafka to evidently Fuks and turn it into a t-shirt extraordinary.

“But the more serious point, I think, is that it is a cult book, it is a cult film.

“I think the book is in way catching up, I hope, with the film, now that it’s available again in English.

“And I think it has some very serious things to say and hopefully people will take the time to think about both the past, and the terrible things that city and that part of the world went through, but also maybe what it says to us about the present as well.”