In Fiercely Disturbing ‘The Painted Bird,’ Survival Is a Struggle Full of Unforgettable Horrors 

The Painted Bird” is at once a powerful and unbearable experience. To call it challenging is an understatement. Yet it would also be appropriate to call it poetic. How to approach this film? The answer to that question lies in its meaning and purpose. Many films only seek escapism from the human experience, director Václav Marhoul does the complete opposite and journeys right into it with all its suffering, terror and brief glimpses of hope. It is set in Eastern Europe amid World War II, but it reaches beyond that theme or subject. Marhoul casts a mirror on the very form and nature of cruelty and endurance.

At 2 hours and 49 minutes “The Painted Bird” is a long film, some viewers will not be able to stomach all of it. Indeed, reports out of its Venice Film Festival premiere last year were full of accounts of audience members walking out. However, its narrative benefits from witnessing the entire journey of its main character, who we first only know as the Boy (Petr Kotlár). When he is introduced, the Boy is under the care of an older aunt (Nina Sunevic) in a rural village. His parents have disappeared, seeking refuge as the distant world war approaches. When the aunt dies, the Boy is given over to Olga (Alla Sokolova), a local healer. This is truly the beginning of the Boy’s journey, which will take him from violent, superstitious homes to open battlefields where Nazi and Soviet troops fight and carry out brutal reprisals on local peasants. 

As the Boy’s travels progress, “The Painted Bird” becomes a flowing, disturbing nightmare of one child’s passage through human depravity. Based on a controversial novel by Czech author Jerzy Kosinski, the film is divided into nine sections or chapters, each one serving as a Dantenean stop for the Boy as he seeks freedom or relief. Every new home, or stop, brings its own, brutal threats. Marhoul does not seek exploitation, but an unnerving environment displaying how life is truly a jungle. Like Elem Klimov’s “Come and See,” or books such as Curzio Malaparte’s “Kaputt,” Marhoul has no interest in remembering Eastern Europe during the war in romantic or falsely heroic terms. It was a time of desperate survival, when the environment brought out the worst in people. The Boy stays with a domineering farmer, Miller (Udo Kier), who spoons out the eyeballs of a man he believes has intentions towards his younger wife. Two different peasants the Boy stay with, a man and then a blonde woman, try to use him as a sexual object to fill a void in their bitter, lonely lives. When the Boy rebels, it is bloodily, either by decapitating a goat or pulling one of his adult pursuers into a pit of ravenous rats. And, in the distance is the sound of war. In quietly eloquent moments, the Boy will sit atop a tree, watching the distant flash of bombs and machine gun fire. 

When Marhoul does find compassion, it is in unlikely places. The Boy is turned over by villagers as a Jew to German troops. A soldier tasked to kill him, Hans (Stellan Skarsgård), carries out an act of aid that explains his previously cryptic, quiet demeanor in earlier moments. Even amid monsters, some individuals will still have a conscience. A priest, played by Harvey Keitel, tries to help the Boy find a home, only to unintentionally hand him off to a new abuser. Like Michael Haneke’s great “The White Ribbon,” also shot in gothic black and white as Marhoul does here, there is a sense that the forces fighting out the war, including their ideals, have either infected the very spirit of the continent or feed off of its primitive roots. Superstition, cruelty, tribalism, hate, much of it spun at the center of the social forces that produced fascism and revolution.  The Boy is bullied at the beginning of the film by children who seem conditioned to never think, they set his pet ferret on fire with the same cold glee the Nazis would later display. “The Painted Bird” gets its title from a scene where one of the Boy’s keepers paints a small bird before letting it fly into its flock where it is then rejected and killed. The same thing was happening down below in the firestorm of the early 20th century. In one harrowing scene captive Jews will try to flee a death camp train, only to be mowed down by Nazi guards. This is what happened, and it is happening somewhere in the world where there is conflict. This is also the first feature film to be spoken in the Interslavic language, because Marhoul does not want to emphasize one nationality over another. Humans are equally barbarous to each other. 

Marhoul directs “The Painted Bird” with a poet’s eye, conjuring the dark forests of its monochrome world like somber hallucinations. Scenes where Soviet partisans drink in darkly-lit taverns have a medieval feel, and a scene where German-aligned Cossacks raid a village hurtles along in its images of rape, burnings and murder like a hellish nightmare. And, while this film has already gained a reputation for its unflinching depiction of bloody acts, they never feel exploitative. They have the grotesque realism of truths of the world we seldom like to discuss, or they have a surreal edge, because unspeakable cruelty is sometimes hard to fathom. This is why events like the Holocaust still shock us, because such terror is beyond comprehension. Marhoul captures this very feeling in “The Painted Bird.”

In a world of sorrows, the acts of the kind stand out even more. There are no saints, but not everyone is a monster. A Soviet sniper, Mitka (Barry Pepper), genuinely becomes a friend to the Boy. When he teaches him the rule of “eye for an eye,” it does not come across as vengeful, but as an adult telling the Boy how to make it through in a time gone mad. 

“The Painted Bird” will inspire debate over its horrors, but it is a profound and meaningful film. Like Francisco Goya’s darkest paintings, it reminds us that great art can encompass all of the human experience, including its hardest to bare wounds. The ending is hopeful in its own way, with a final shot of a bus full of passengers making its way up a road to what we dream is a better tomorrow. Our species is constantly on that ride, enduring what comes, and the lucky ones survive to tell the story. This is one of the year’s best films.

The Painted Bird” premieres July 17 on VOD.