The Painted Bird Review
The Painted Bird is so relentlessly cruel and brutal, you could almost mistake it for an outlandish satire on the extremes of European arthouse cinema. Shot in moody monochrome, and nearly three hours long, Václav Marhoul’s World War II-set film sees its young Jewish protagonist (“The Boy”) encounter Nazis, paedophiles, bestiality, rape, plague, suicide, incest, murder, and virulent anti-Semitism. Death, in its infinite variety, becomes his travelling companion and he, eventually, its willing servant.
At times, the film tips over into comedy as black as the devil’s heart – a cat licks at a scooped-out eyeball, an infirm old man is literally fucked to death by a far younger woman, who may be his daughter. No wonder some squeamish patrons reportedly walked out of screenings at the Venice, Toronto and London film festivals.
Eventually, though, you become inured to the film’s sheer pitilessness and it’s at that point you see The Painted Bird for what it really is – a deeply moving tale of innocence not lost, but ripped away, and a profound meditation on the horrors of war and the Holocaust. It’s about the way in which the ugliness of conflict and persecution infects everything and everyone like a virus; people lose their minds, all their inhibitions, they retreat into mistrust and superstition. Unlike Elem Klimov's masterpiece Come and See (1985), which shares some of this film's DNA, it isn't even the Nazis who seek to kill or maim The Boy, but his own soul-sick people.
Based on controversial Polish writer Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel and split into nine different “chapters”, each named for a character or characters The Boy encounters, The Painted Bird is set somewhere in Eastern Europe towards the end of the conflict. Fearing anti-Semitic persecution, the young lad in question (Petr Kotlár) has been sent by his parents to live with an aunt in the country, but a series of disasters soon sees him homeless and completely alone in the middle of nowhere. Setting off on a quest to find his parents, instead he discovers only misery and agony. You even briefly toy with the notion he has somehow travelled centuries back in time.
It’s 1944 and yet the first village into which he stumbles is like something from the Dark Ages, and he is quickly surrounded by fearful peasants, who accuse him of “bewitching the cows”, “poisoning the water” and being “the seed of the devil”. He’s saved from certain doom by Olga (Ala Sakalova), an elderly medicine woman, but not before he has sustained a good beating. In fact, if there were a drinking game for the number of times The Boy is thrashed during the course of the film, you would be well and truly sloshed by the end.
At various times, he is also hung from a ceiling by his arms, thrown into a cesspit, buried up to his neck in the ground, and, in the clutches of paedophile Garbos (played with creepy malevolence by Julian Sands), repeatedly raped. The Boy endures so many torments that eventually he stops speaking – his expression blank, joyless and unnerving, his eyes two black pools. Jakub Cech's striking sound design gets to do a lot of the heavy lifting as the film has long, non-speaking sequences and no score – it is as if mere words and music aren't enough to articulate all that goes on here.
There are two moments that sum up The Boy’s transformation during his journey (we do learn his name, by the way, but its reveal in the film is a huge moment, so I won’t divulge it). The Painted Bird’s opening, a thoroughly upsetting sequence, sees him chased and assaulted by a gang of kids – he’s a sensitive, artistic child and hasn’t got a chance as they pummel him and worse (“You’re only half a man, with dirty boots,” offers his unsympathetic aunt afterwards). Then, towards the end, he encounters another group of would-be assailants at an orphanage. But this time, the toughs take one look at his face and demeanour – it is as if he has lived an entire lifetime in less than a year – and let him pass untouched. In that moment, you wonder how The Boy can ever come back from this, how he can unsee all that he has witnessed, and what sort of adult he may become. The Painted Bird isn't a coming-of-age tale, it's about a childhood corrupted and ruined.
The film plays out against the backdrop of the Holocaust, but it is only directly referenced on camera a couple of times, most horrifyingly in one of the few scenes in which our protagonist isn’t immediately present. Prisoners being transported to a death camp on a Nazi train stage an escape, smashing in the side of their carriage, jumping to the ground, and fleeing for their lives. Of course, they are immediately machine-gunned by soldiers and, in perhaps the film’s most harrowing moment, we see the death of a mother and her babe in arms.
Mercy is an entirely arbitrary concept in The Painted Bird. The Boy survives through luck as much as his own resolve – while others (like the woman and her baby) are cut down, he somehow keeps going. He is mere moments from death on several occasions but is spared each time, twice by Nazis; one a doleful German soldier, played by Stellan Skarsgård, the other an SS officer (Tim Kalkhof), who had, moments earlier, shot another prisoner in the head. And those whose intention is to help The Boy – Harvey Keitel's Catholic priest, a Red Army sniper, played by Barry Pepper – end up doing the exact opposite. There is neither rhyme nor reason in a world turned upside down.
By the time The Boy encounters the painted bird of the title, I'm not entirely sure he needs the lesson it imparts. Lekh (Lech Dyblik) is an old man who captures birds and sells them in little baskets he has made. He daubs paint on one such creature’s wings and sets it free to rejoin its flock, but the bird is attacked and killed by the others simply because it is different. The Boy has already come close to being killed by a mob, forced to flee for his life by jumping into a fast-flowing river, and been racially abused ("He'll just bring misfortune... dog's blood!") by Udo Kier's Miller, who goes on to rip out the eyeballs of a love rival. People's willingness to become slaves to their own worst impulses will not be news to this kid.
It is a theme the film returns to again and again, as people's inhibitions retreat and their primal instincts take control. It is never more apparent than in The Painted Bird's graphic sexual content. There is depravity here to make your hair stand on end; jealousy becomes pure savagery in the vignette featuring Miller; a promiscuous girl meets a truly horrible end; even our protagonist isn’t immune, as he is seduced by an older woman. When he fails to satisfy her, she finds fulfilment elsewhere (I'll spare you the details), leaving him jealous and vengeful.
For all its ugliness, the film is visually stunning; beautiful even. Czech director Marhoul – whose previous feature was Tobruk, another WWII drama, 12 years ago – shoots on 35mm, with veteran cinematographer Vladimír Smutný, and The Painted Bird is an immersive, tactile experience as a result. You feel the wind in your hair, the mud between your fingers, the chill in your bones. Its stark images of bruised skies and bleak vistas are atmospheric and poetic, while a couple of its big set-pieces – including the Jewish prisoners' flight from the train – are bravura technical accomplishments. You end up admiring the film's artistry even while recoiling from its horrors.
The Painted Bird is available in select cinemas and to watch digitally in the UK from September 11.