In the 2019 adaptation Painted Birdbased on the controversial Holocaust memoir by Jerzy Kosinki, the sanctity of life and innocence has no value at all. To summarize, Painted Bird is a grueling freefall into the abyss, with the child protagonist navigating an unnamed and hostile country and facing different degrees of evil: morals, apathy, or conscription. Vaclav MarhoulThis almost mythical recreation of Kosinky’s haunting source material may be the most chilling film you’ll ever see. Fairy tales without the possibility of a ‘free lunch’ in another world or the reward for suffering. But to accuse the film of only using the tactic of spontaneous surprise does it a disservice. It is very unique in style and execution and meanwhile shares story tropes Schindler’s List, Bent, And Pianistit examines the atrocities of war from a different angle.
Loosely based on Nazi-occupied Poland (the Czech director avoided naming the country, using a fictitious Interslavic language) this film is the spiritual successor of the likes of courtesy of Federico Fellini La Strada, Owned by Otto Preminger Lost Rabbit Lake, owned by Victor Erice Beehive Spirit And Guillermo Del Toro Devil’s Backbone. In the post-war moral void, fascism has polluted everything, corrupted everything it touches, magical thinking, primitivist habits and perverted humanity have gained a foothold. Painted Bird portrays innocence and childhood under duress, a world where the majority of people are basically broken and abject horrors are the order of the day. To be clear: Painted Bird rival courtesy of Stanley Kubrick Clockwork Orange, Gaspar Noes’ irreversible, or Despentes Virgin Baise Moi in how controversial and provocative the film really is. You have been warned…
What is ‘Painted Bird’ About?
In the opening scene of Painted Bird a boy and his pet are chased through a narrow path, surrounded by dead trees in a desert of purgatory somewhere that seems out of time. The viewer wonders why the boy is running through this existing terrain—until they catch up with him and we are treated to a chilling first glimpse of this world. Joska (Peter Kotlar) is burying his pet and his grandmother is punishing him. Their interaction (like many people in the film) is one-sided, with voiced pauses and the (one-sided) conversation is one that ignores anticipated emotions. The fire resulted in the boy being left alone and destitute and at the mercy of the villagers, who branded him a witch and a vampire and wanted to execute him. Olga (Alla Sokolova), a shaman and harridan rescue Joska and ask him to help her in providing aid to sick villagers. Joska basically became a male slave whose sole purpose was to entertain and submit to the adults he came in contact with. It is a Nietzschean cycle of power and abuse that the child has no choice but to submit to.
Udo Kier’s Miller is another terrible substitute with contradictory traits. In one scene he’s stroking a cat affectionately, the next it’s prying (Michaela Dolezalova) lover’s eye popped out with a spoon. In a display of childlike innocence, Joska restores the victim’s eye – the childish innocence of returning gouged out eyeballs to a blind victim is both hilarious and horrifying. Sympathetic priest (Harvey Keitel) unknowingly takes Joska to Garbo (Julian Sands), unaware that Garbo is a sadistic pedophile. Garbo’s deserved death feels like a Brothers Grimm fairytale.
An aura of superstition and mystery surrounds the child, the temptress Udo Kier’s wife believes the child will bring bad luck. Officer Hans (Stellan Skarsgård) saves the boy and Joska then develops a father-daughter dynamic with Russian sniper Mitka (Pepper Barry). The adults in the idea of film don’t live up to the way they act, and despite some objections to the treatment of the boy, it’s ultimately a film that explores the heart of darkness. Even Keitel’s well-meaning Priest allows abuse and horror, even if unwittingly. It doesn’t end well for a character who adheres to any moral framework – it may seem like a cynical view, but it’s important to highlight the absolute power and corruption of war. Historical basis of Painted Bird cannot be ignored, to do so would deny the reality of history and its collective trauma. Is the film a valuable work of art? Or a cinematic lesson in nihilism?
The ‘Painted Bird’ Is Beautiful, Though Horrible
Some things improve Painted Bird and make it a little less gruesome than potential audiences might expect. It has an amazing camera, belongs to Vladimir Smutny frame by frame the evocative and terrifying cinematography, the monochromatic color palette, and the crowd sequences with the violent and paranoid vibe of courtesy of Ken Russell Devil. The visuals add an element of fantastical, combined with Punch and Judy style grotesquery, it somewhat offsets the brutality. A clever ploy on Marhoul’s part to conjure up visions of Hell that we (most) witness through fish-eyed childhood perceptions.
This film has an unusual narrative structure, broken down into Tarantino-like the part that goes against the three-act script. The transition is truly literary. Occasionally, there are scenes explicitly linked to the Holocaust – jarring scenes that painfully emphasize the barbaric history. Even though the director uses an episodic way of telling the story, the tone remains the same and nothing is out of balance with how the narrative is built. Not since PAN Labyrinth does the audience see the visceral nature of war overlapping childhood to horrific effect. Newcomer Petr Kotlar’s shocking performance is heartbreaking, the subtext of him suppressing his humanity giving the film another layer of poignancy.
There is an ingrained hope in Joska, though it never materializes. Kotlár’s performance is mostly silent, and we follow him as he languishes in a nightmarish logical existence, a world inhabited by shadowy figures and constant threats. Hatred and fear drive the characters in the film to commit unspeakable acts. Painted Bird lost much of the appeal it had for readers and artistic value when Kosinki was exposed as a fraud and literary hoax. The author was roundly criticized, widely condemned, and even faced accusations of plagiarism. Validity of Painted Bird and the writer is questioned and it ends with the writer’s tragic death. Craft and style Painted Bird undeniably brilliant, even the most jaded cinema will find something extraordinary about the film, and it makes Marhoul’s efforts worthwhile. Like many of its extreme predecessors, the film likes Painted Bird is a necessary evil. What do we learn if we protect our eyes from horror?