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Skip to 0 minutes and 12 seconds Here, in St Andrew’s Churchyard in Clifton Village, Bristol, there is a very old graveyard but no longer a church. In November 1940, it was hit during one of many German bombing raids on Bristol and never rebuilt. Britain remembers the Blitz as a time when the nation showed its strength, solidarity and resilience in the face of a terrible enemy. However, in those countries of Europe that surrendered to German occupation, the memory is much more complicated. Alongside the physical damage is the psychological trauma of defeat, the desire to emphasise resistance and downplay collaboration with the enemy. One of the most powerful treatments of this experience is the novel The Cremator, by the Czech writer Ladislav Fuks, which was published in 1967.

Skip to 1 minute and 0 seconds The novel is striking because it focuses on a Czech who becomes a German collaborator. Like many nations occupied by Hitler during the Second World War, the Czechs preferred to see themselves as victims, not agents of German violence. The Communist Party, which came to power in Czechoslovakia shortly after the war, painted a simple picture in which the noble, patriotic Czech working class resisted, while the selfish middle-class collaborated. In books and films, however, these Czech collaborators are normally marginal, secondary characters. Fuks, by contrast, shows the reader the world from the Czech collaborator’s perspective. The novel begins in 1938, just before Czechoslovakia surrenders some of its territory, the Sudetenland, to Nazi Germany.

Skip to 1 minute and 48 seconds In March 1939, Hitler occupied the rest of what we now call the Czech Republic. In the middle of all this is Karel Kopfrkingl. Mr Kopfrkingl is a good Czech man. He is a devoted husband and wants only the best for his two teenage children. He works as the director of a crematorium. He is fascinated by human suffering and wishes it could somehow be ended. We see his longing for a better world in his strange habit of changing the names of people and things. His wife is called Marie, but he calls her Lakme, and asks her to call him Roman. In the novel, Fuks uses different images and motifs to suggest that Prague is descending into darkness.

Skip to 2 minutes and 35 seconds For example, the reader may notice the names of four minor characters, called Strauss, Dvorak, Janacek and Wagner. These are very ordinary Czech surnames, but they also belong to four famous Central European classical composers. The reader meets them in order from the lightest, Johann Strauss, master of the Viennese waltz, to the darkest, Richard Wagner, one of Hitler’s favourite composers. Kopfrkingl falls under the influence of Willi, an ethnic German, who tells Kopfrkingl that he has German blood. He also tells him that his wife, and therefore his children, have Jewish blood. Willi believes the Jewish nation is old and senile and needs putting out of its misery. Kopfrkingl is gradually persuaded and begins working for the German occupier.

Skip to 3 minutes and 23 seconds Eventually he murders his wife and son, in the belief that he is releasing them from further suffering. Why does Kopfrkingl become a collaborator? The internationally acclaimed 1969 film version of the novel, directed by Juraj Herz and co-written by Fuks, offers too easy an answer. In the film, Kopfrkingl is an unsettling, threatening figure from the beginning, a bad man well capable of doing the Nazis’ dirty work. The novel is more ambiguous, and shows that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Kopfrkingl’s taste in news stories, music and art shows that he is shallow; his knowledge of Buddhism comes from a coffee-table book. He borrows the words of others, and can’t find the power to resist within himself.

Skip to 4 minutes and 11 seconds For Fuks, however, his real flaw is that he cannot accept that pain and suffering are part of life. Willi resembles the Devil, tempting Kopfrkingl with promises of a better world. The Cremator therefore does more than just explore the Czech situation during the Second World War. It questions the human desire for a perfect world. In the twentieth century, the pursuit of perfection led to both Fascist and Communist regimes, which succeeded only in causing far greater suffering. Kopfrkingl’s ideal of perfection is the timetable at the crematorium, which ensures the efficient incineration of dead bodies. The Czechs experienced Nazism and Stalinism in quick succession.

Skip to 4 minutes and 56 seconds For Czech readers in 1967, who were living under Communist dictatorship, the question of collaboration was not only historical, but also current. As a writer, Fuks understood well the pressure of conforming to political expectations. His work consistently analyses the effect that fear and intimidation have on the ordinary human being. Fuks’s more positive characters do not collaborate with the oppressor, but, like the Jewish doctor in The Cremator, wait in hiding for good to triumph. Their reward, however, lies in the next world. In The Cremator, Fuks unfashionably suggests that it is not given to human beings to save the world. All they can do is try to live as best they can in the world as it is.

'The Cremator' with Dr Rajendra Chitnis

This video will tell you about the book ‘The Cremator’.

It’s OK to pause the video or to watch it as many times as you like. The video subtitles do not show the accented characters, unfortunately. To see them you might like to refer to the transcript that is available below in the section ‘downloads’ - click ‘English Transcript pdf’.

(After you watch the video and click the pink circle ‘mark as complete’, move on to the next step and read the article ‘More about the book’.)

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Cultural Studies and Modern Languages: an Introduction

University of Bristol