Greetings again from the darkness. Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel “The Painted Bird” has one of the strangest and most controversial histories of any book. Initially celebrated as an extraordinary piece on the Holocaust era, the novel was banned in Poland, and author Kosinski was accused of falsifying claims of it being an autobiographical work. Later he was accused of plagiarism for this book and his 1970 book “Being There” (adapted into a 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers). This story of a young Jewish boy, abandoned by his parents and traveling the Eastern Europe countryside during WWII, is now accepted as a blend of fiction and his friend (director) Roman Polanski’s experiences. Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul has turned the book into a stunning viewing experience.
First time actor Petr Kotlar is extraordinary as the unnamed (until the end) Jewish boy on a journey that might be entitled Dante’s Circle of Abuse or Homer’s Odyssey of Misery. This is a young boy in need of kindness from strangers, but unable to find much. The film opens with the boy running through the woods carrying what appears to be his pet ferret. He’s being chased by a group of sadistic Anti-Semite bullies. It’s a chase that doesn’t end well. We learn the boy is living with his “Auntie” Marta (Nina Sunevic) on her rundown farm, and we intuit that his parents thought he would be safer here than with them. When the woman dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the boy accidentally burns the house down, kicking off his walk across the countryside. Almost inexplicably, this is the most upbeat segment of the film.
Director Marhoul divides the film into 9 chapters, each named after the person the boy meets and lives with temporarily. I’ll recap the following eight chapters with a focus on not giving away too much … just know that this film is unrelenting in its brutality and bleakness. After Marta’s death, the boy stumbles into a village where he is considered cursed and labeled a vampire. The witch doctor Olga (Ala Sakalova) enslaves him until he escapes down river, where he is rescued by a mill worker. The head miller (Udo Kier) is a frightening man who takes exception with his worker (not the boy) gazing lustfully at his wife. Kier’s eyes manage to burn right through the black and white film, and soon he turns exceedingly violent towards his wife and the worker, leaving us with an unforgettable visual.
The boy then finds himself at the home of Lekhi (Lech Dyblik) who captures wild birds and regularly hooks up with Ludmila (Jitka Cvancorova), a wild woman who lives in the forest. The boy witnesses two horrific deaths, but not before the sequence which gives the film its title and ensures we understand what happens to outcasts – those who are different. At about the one hour mark, the boy finds an injured horse and walks it into the local village. It’s at this point where we hear him speak (kind of) for the first time. A violent Russian invasion of the village results in the Cossacks offering the bound and gagged Jewish boy to the German soldiers as a “gift”. Stellan Skarsgard is the veteran soldier who draws the assignment of taking the boy into the woods to shoot him.
When the soldier sends him on his way, a sickly Catholic Priest (Harvey Keitel) takes the boy under his wing and trains him to be an altar boy. All is fine until a parishioner (Julian Sands) with despicable intentions agrees to take the boy in and provide for him. This segment has what may be the most cringe-inducing death scene in the film, after which we find the boy trudging through snow and falling through ice, and crawling towards a cabin where Labrina (Julia Valentova) and a sickly old man live. The boy faces more abuse as he’s incapable of pleasing Labrina, which leads to situations he’s much too young to understand. Traumatized, the boy’s personality takes a turn.
In his next village, an attack by Germans puts the boy in contact with Russian sniper Mitka (Barry Pepper), who leaves him with the real life advice of, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Having only recently lost his innocence, the advice hits home for the boy. He ends up in an orphanage where a surprise occurs that causes the boy to lash out in anger … at least until he observes something that makes him understand the world has been cruel to others, not just him.
Normally, I wouldn’t recap or outline the segments of a movie in this manner, but it’s crucial to understand what you are about to watch. It’s a nearly 3 hour epic of human cruelty and survival instinct. Young Petr Kotlar spends much of the movie taking and witnessing abuse while his face is near emotionless (save for a couple of extremes). Joy is elusive, if not non-existent. The film shows us not all Holocaust horrors occurred in death camps. The atrocities of war and the cruelty of humans result in a film that is beyond bleak at times, but also makes a clear point about how differently people treat those not “like” us, regardless who the “us” is. This point is as evident today as it was during WWII.
Director Marhoul excels in showing, rather than telling … there is almost no ‘telling’ throughout the film. Cinematographer Vladimir Smutney makes expert use of the 35mm black & white film to provide images that are stark and brutal like the world the boy sees. The Production Design from Jan Vlasak puts us right in the muck, while the Sound from Jakub Cech is crucial to every scene.
The film is a joint project of Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ukraine, as Poland refused to participate. It had quite the festival run last year, including some high profile walk-outs during the Venice Film Festival. It’s one of the rare movies that every cinephile is thankful to have seen, yet as human beings, we would likely never want to watch again. Murder, abuse, suicide, torture, bestiality, rape, violence, cruelty, slaughter, pedophilia, incest, war atrocities … these aren’t topics we typically seek out, and they thankfully aren’t topics that all show up in a single movie very often! There are a few moments of compassion if you watch closely, but mostly it’s a reminder of the cruelty of humans when the structure of society collapses, and hope is hard to come by. As Edwin Starr sang in his number one hit in 1970, “War, good God. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”
Available on VOD from IFC Films on July 17, 2020
watch the trailer: