We’ve made an effort with our Film Friday selections to choose films that, while they may not have played at your local multiplex, are still well-known enough that you’d have the opportunity to see them. But this week we’re veering well off the beaten trail and going straight to the Czech New Wave. Until reading about this film, I didn’t even know there was a Czech New Wave. But for those adventurous cinephiles who admire the work of Godard, Fellini, and Argento, The Cremator is absolutely worth seeing if you can track it down.
Directed by Czech filmmaker Juraj Herz in 1969, The Cremator is a surreal and macabre view of the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, as seen through the eyes of Roman Kopfrkingl. The innovative, skewed camerawork and sometimes jumpy editing give us a peek into Roman’s unstable mind and his self-delusional worldview. Roman begins the film as a somewhat eerily overenthusiastic crematorium employee who is otherwise a (mostly) virtuous and dedicated family man. When an old friend begins rallying support for the Nazi cause in Czechoslovakia, Roman is tempted and manipulated into a series of escalating atrocities that push him deeper and deeper into his own personal delusion.
Even if the subject matter isn’t your style – there is a fair amount of sex and violence – the craft of film making on display here is astounding. The camerawork is truly innovative, and the editing and overlapping scene transitions create an eerily surreal and dream-like atmosphere that’s just exceptional.
So what should one sip while enjoying this Eastern European macabre masterpiece? I recommend a glass of slivovitz, neat. Slivovitz is a variety of Eastern European brandies called rakia, each distilled from a different fruit, in this case plums. Slivovitz is produced across a broad swath of the continent from Italy to Bulgaria, which quite emphatically includes the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia). There continues to this day a strong tradition of producing slivovitz and other rakias in illegal homemade stills, firmly entrenching these spirits as the people’s drink.
In Pennsylvania liquor stores there are two brands of slivovitz available. We tried Navip, which is a good deal for $23 per disc-shaped bottle. When first tasting the clear, traditionally moonshined liquor of the Balkan workingman I expected something much harsher and more extreme in flavor. Instead, I was surprised to find a smooth, even flavor that’s distinctly fruity and sweet, but not cloying. And for a 90 proof liquor, slivovitz is delightfully easy to sip and savor on its own, though some may prefer to add some sparkling water.
At some point we may experiment with a few slivovitz-based cocktails, but for now I’m perfectly content to enjoy it on its own merits paired with eerie Czech New Wave cinema.