“For me, the typical horror film is a chainsaw massacre. And, of course, this wasn’t possible to do during the socialist era,” Juraj Herz said in 2002, near the end of his long career as one of Czechoslovakia’s most subversive filmmakers. Between the late 1940s and the late 1980s, his country was a Soviet satellite state, its official culture intermittently dulled by conformity and censorship. The exceptions were its literature—Bohumil Hrabal, Václav Havel, and Milan Kundera, among others, wrote boldly dissident work, even if their work often went unpublished and banned at home—and its cinema.
The auteurs of Herz’s generation made audacious films that mix absurdism and the grotesque in oblique allegories of life under totalitarianism. In its energy and richness, the Czech New Wave of the 1960s rivals the comparatively more renowned Italian Neorealism, French New Wave, and New German Cinema. Because of the repressive communist regime, though, many Czech films were shelved or banned in Czechoslovakia, some retroactively, stunting the influence of these homegrown visionaries.
Although he didn’t consider himself part of the Wave, Herz is nonetheless one of its most inventive figures. From 1965 until his death in 2018, at age eighty-three, he made startling, exuberantly stylized films that borrow the frameworks and visual grammar of horror, fantasy, suspense, or costume drama. Unlike much arthouse fare, Herz’s movies do not skimp on plot either. “In and Out of the Czechoslovak New Wave,” a touring retrospective that features seven Herz films, plus a television documentary about his work, showcases his macabre wit and skeptical realism. (In an à propos real-life twist, the retrospective has been postponed during the Covid-19 pandemic, although the Criterion Collection is this month releasing a new digital restoration of The Cremator, Herz’s 1969 masterpiece.)
Herz’s universe is defined by deception and betrayal, perhaps unsurprising given the secret police and widespread propaganda of the Eastern Bloc. His anti-heroes often capitulate to the tyrannical forces around them, whether those forces are bureaucratic or familial. Unequivocal happy endings are rare. Death is almost always in the picture.
The horror in Herz’s films is more insidious than the gory slash-and-bleed of Hollywood schlock; it is as psychological as it is situational, and usually lacks the cathartic denouement of commercial thrillers. In Avant-garde to New Wave: Czechoslovak Cinema, Surrealism and the Sixties, the critic Jonathan Owens argues that “to focus overwhelmingly on overt politics in the case of the Czech New Wave would be to miss the point that the New Wave was frequently oppositional and subversive precisely for exploring themes and asserting ideas that were neglected and even rendered taboo during the previous decade.”
Herz is a case in point. On the surface, his films are mordant fables about authoritarianism. More implicitly, they’re about the stranglehold of illusion—a misbegotten faith in love, honor, or loyalty that ultimately destroys us.
Herz was born in 1934, in what is now Slovakia. The country was then a client state of Nazi Germany, and Jews, including Herz’s family, were banned from attending the cinema. During the Holocaust, he and his parents were temporarily separated; Herz was imprisoned at the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, an experience that later informed his Caught by Night (1985; its title sometimes also rendered as Night Overtake Me), one of the few narrative films about the camps made by a survivor. After the war, he attended art school in Bratislava and eventually moved to Prague to study directing and puppetry.
By the 1950s, Czechoslovakia had a robust nationalized film industry. At its center were two juggernauts: the Barrandov studios, a state-of-the-art production facility in Prague (expanded by the Nazis during the German occupation), and FAMU, the celebrated film school where most of the nation’s major directors studied. Herz was an outlier. He got his film education on working sets; he was a second-unit director on Zbyněk Brynych’s Transport from Paradise (1962) and on Ján Kadár’s The Shop on Main Street (1965), which won the Oscar for best foreign language film that year.
The late 1960s were an oddly auspicious time to make movies in Czechoslovakia. The country’s young filmmakers were sloughing off the dogma of Socialist Realism. A number of radical, formally adventurous, and even politically risky films appeared in quick succession, including Josef Kilian (1964), Closely Watched Trains (1966), Daisies (1966), The Firemen’s Ball (1967), The Deserter and the Nomads (1968), and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970). The journalist Ernst Fischer described Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968 as the “freest land ever known,” an overstatement that nonetheless manifested in the country’s avant-garde.
Herz made his directorial debut in 1965 with The Junk Shop, a half-hour contribution to Pearls of the Deep, an omnibus of short films based on stories by Bohumil Hrabal. (The segment was cut due to time constraints.) The Junk Shop, a bittersweet portrait of the eccentrics at a paper recycling facility, introduces many of Herz’s signature themes, most notably the temptation of fantasy in the face of a dehumanizing twentieth century. The film also exhibits his sardonic humor, as when one customer tries to sell her love letters (some of them were written in verse, she adds, as an enticement).
The junk shop manager is enchanted by a dumpy woman whose apartment overlooks the facility; in his daydreams, she is transformed into a ravishing bombshell. Later, Herz splices centerfolds and glamour shots into scenes of workaday grime. This erotic filigree is at odds with the mound of paper that is the film’s visual centerpiece. At one point, a child literally disappears into the heap, which seems to symbolize Czechoslovakia’s overstuffed bureaucracy.
A similar metaphor animates Sign of Cancer (1965). This time, a cash-strapped state hospital is a stand-in for Czechoslovakia’s corrupt public services. When a doctor is murdered, investigators sweep in to interrogate the staff and patients. What begins as a conventional mystery—with an illicit love triangle subplot—becomes more sinister as the hospital is revealed to be a hothouse of sex, alcohol, and rampant breaches of the Hippocratic Oath. Doctors refuse to inform one female patient that she is dying of cancer, for example, calling into question whether even medical authorities can be trusted.
With its infinite white corridors and oddball patients, including an amateur astrologer in a velvet robe, the hospital is akin to an asylum. Despite its fatalistic humor and morbid ornamentation, the film is too tense to play as straight satire—IMDB categorizes it as a “psychotronic” film, which is as apt a designation as any—though its setting clearly makes for a microcosm of Czechoslovakian officialdom, rife with incompetent apparatchiks.
Themes of deceit and disillusionment, delivered in an ambiguous tone, characterize all of Herz’s subsequent films. Lovers are sometimes the duplicitous parties, as in Oil Lamps (1971), a period drama set in a claustrophobic backwater. Its main character, a thirty-year-old virgin named Štěpa, marries a soldier who, unbeknownst to her, has syphilis. As her husband unravels into madness, Štěpa watches her dreams of motherhood and domestic security fade.
At other times, family is the source of treachery. Morgiana (1972), one of Herz’s most flamboyant films, is about a woman who poisons her sister—both roles are played by the same actress—in an attempt to claim all of their late father’s estate. The film has the simplicity of a fairy tale; the evil sister dresses in black and the good sister in white. Several scenes are shot from a cat’s point of view, intimating a roving conscience similar to that in The Cassandra Cat (1963), a Czech film whose feline protagonist is able to see humans’ hidden feelings. Other scenes have a woozy, psychedelic palette meant to evoke a poisoned brain. (The film won the top prize at the Chicago International Film Festival, although, thanks to the Czech censors, Herz was not notified of its triumph for seven years.)
Both Oil Lamps and Morgiana are pervaded with motifs of disease and decay. It’s perhaps too easy to read this as political commentary on the end of the Prague Spring and the subsequent period of repression in the 1970s known as Normalization, when many films were banned and a number of directors were blacklisted or went into exile. Yet the films seem to symbolize a sick nation and a toxic body politic.
Herz worked off and on in Czechoslovakia for the rest of his life, though he continued to run afoul of the censors. Ferat Vampire (1981), an anti-consumerist satire about a car manufacturer whose vehicles run on human blood, is his most explicit homage to the horror genre; its Czech title puns on Nosferatu, and its hyper-stylized mix of sex, gore, and machinery recalls the contemporaneous work of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. Although censors nixed the more extreme scenes, graphic imagery abounds, including a dream sequence in which a race car is depicted as a body, with raw tendons and spurting jets of blood.
In 1974, the Czech writer Antonín Liehm noted that “it was much harder for the watchdogs to penetrate the land of fairy tales, folk stories, and poetic visions… all the more so since at that time folklore was recommended and defended by the state.” He specifically meant Czechoslovakia’s revered tradition of animated puppet films, but the argument applies across all genres. In Herz’s case, there’s also perhaps the lingering influence of Slovak surrealism, which, according to Owens, exhibits “a reliance on native folk tales, a greater predilection for the ‘allegorical message,’ and a more romantic, ‘literary’ sensibility.”
In Beauty and the Beast (1978), Herz reimagines the eponymous fairy tale as a gothic pastoral. The beast is a bird-mammal hybrid that haunts a ruined woodland castle. The film’s atmosphere is harshly textural, with corroded walls and statuary, and the constant gurgling soundtrack of a brackish pool. Once again, the rift between illusion and reality is a dominant theme. (Class is also an abiding concern in Herz’s work; here, the threat of insolvency—the protagonist’s merchant father finds himself bankrupt—sets the plot in motion.)
The most profound horror in Herz’s oeuvre, however, is that of the Holocaust. The Cremator (1969), arguably his masterpiece, is a wild revisionist satire about the origins of the Final Solution. Based on the novel of the same name by Ladislav Fuks, the film chronicles the disintegration of Karl Kopfrkingl, a crematorium employee seduced by Nazism. At the start of the film, Kopfrkingl is a bourgeois functionary: a teetotaler, an aesthete, a family man, and a student of Buddhist philosophy. He’s also a devout patriot who speaks Czech at home, cooks the Czech way, and sends his children to Czech schools.
When the Nazis encroach on Czechoslovakia, however, he abandons his principles and becomes obsessed with liberating souls via his “temple of death.” Shot in black-and-white, often with the queasy perspectives of fish-eye lenses, the film presages the half-campy, half-horrifying mood of David Lynch’s work. It’s Herz’s boldest achievement—so bold, in fact, that Czech censors banned it until 1989.
The Cremator is the purest expression of Herz’s technical artistry, but Caught by Night is the clearest example of his ambition. It’s both a meticulously crafted vision of Ravensbrück and a biopic of Jožka Jabůrková, a real-life Czech journalist and anti-fascist resistance fighter. Unlike many Holocaust films that sentimentalize individual heroism, Caught by Night doesn’t seek to inspire so much as to bear witness. Jabůrková’s courage and idealism can’t withstand the murderous resolve of the Third Reich, just as no one individual can derail a totalitarian system. That fact does not render personal integrity unnecessary or unworthy, Herz suggests, but it does temper the hagiographic impulse of a Holocaust resister narrative with a tragedian’s clear-sightedness.
Writing in The Czechoslovak New Wave (1985), Peter Hames noted that Herz’s work suggests “a very black interpretation of the human condition.” Indeed, Herz’s films are far from comforting, but neither are they nihilistic. He borrows the tropes and rhythms of horror to depict life under tyranny, which, in his view, is humanity’s fundamental condition. People are susceptible to illusions—of love, of devotion, of hope—that undo them. But it’s thrilling whenever an artist tells an unsparing truth about life: the honesty of Herz’s work is itself an antidote to despair.
A new digital restoration of The Cremator (1969), directed by Juraj Herz, is released this month by the Criterion Collection.