A grueling epic of misery, The Painted Bird (based on the novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński) makes Come and See look like a children’s book. Taking place in the Czech Republic during the end of WWII, it finds one young Jewish boy on an odyssey to find his family, suffering indignity after indignity on the way there. Nearly all human deprivation is here — rape, murder, bestiality — which is made all the worse by its grim inevitability. It’s a difficult, brutal watch; the kind of film I’d recommend, but would find difficult to defend if challenged.
The Painted Bird is not like other birds. Due to its strange plumage, the other birds get jealous. They surround the painted bird, and they kill it. This metaphor suggests that due to the savagery of Central Europe during WWII, anything that is different — whether Slavic, gay, gypsy, or Jewish — must be surrounded and bullied and ultimately destroyed.
Our unnamed young protagonist (Petr Kotlar) is one such painted bird. The film starts with him holding a ferret while running through the woods, being chased by other boys. They beat him up and burn his pet to a crisp. He then comes home to his aunt, who tells him it’s his fault. Things get much, much, much worse from there.
It turns out that the boy has been sent away to the countryside by his parents, evidently for his own protection. When his aunt dies, he finds himself completely adrift, relying on the kindness of strangers to get by. The big problem is that these strangers aren’t too kind at all. In fact, they are kind of evil, with nearly each one finding a new way to abuse the young lad. Told in a completely unsentimental style, The Painted Bird is an incredibly difficult watch — yet, its disturbing scenes aren’t merely there to exploit or titillate, but to lay witness to the horrors of recent history.
The story is told in an episodic format, with each chapter bookmarked by one or two names. Each one brings a new sense of dread: will this person be kind, or just another monster? The genius of the screenplay is how each episode seems to change the young lad just a little bit more, showing how one’s view on life can be completely altered by experience.
Credit must go to Kotlar, who turns in all-time great child performance, Bresson-like in the simple and pure way he interprets the role. This is the right choice; if it aimed for histrionics, it would have been unbearable. As it is, it feels inevitable. Like The Irishman, the weighty runtime here really immerses us into the young boy’s life; make it an hour shorter, and his transformation wouldn’t have anything near the same effect.
The epic-length is matched by the epic 35mm black-and-white-cinematography. Making use of a huge anamorphic widescreen, our protagonist is often situated to the side of the frame while horrific things going on in the background, as if to stress his unwilling participation in a degraded world. Unlike the cinematography, the film’s moral conclusions are a complete grey zone, depicting horrific things that show how terrible the war was — and what the disease of antisemitism led to — without ever editorializing or telling us how to feel. One can only watch and watch and watch, powerless to stop the awful things from happening.
The Painted Bird makes it absolutely clear that antisemitism was not just limited to the Nazis. Nearly everyone seems to hate the young lad, simply for the unavoidable fact of his birth. Anti-semitism doesn’t end with the Nazi’s demise either; the transition to peacetime does little to placate the locals’ hatred of Jews. Coming at a time when hatred of Jewish people seems on the rise and being weaponized, The Painted Bird devastatingly shows us the inevitable end of such hate. While it definitely courts controversy, there is a method to such relentless misery. This is the story of survival. The kind of story that should never be told again.
‘The Painted Bird‘ played as part of 14 Films Around The World Festival at Kino in der KulturBrauerei in Berlin, Germany, a special selection of 14 films from 14 countries from Cannes, Locarno, Berlinale, Venice and more.