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Empathetic and Unblinking: The Painted Bird

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By Yun-hua Chen.

Seldom can film-viewing be such a devastating experience. Having competed in the category of main competition at the Venice Film Festival and being handpicked by Around the World in 14 Films, the Berlin festival of festivals, it is a film experience of three hours which deeply challenges the spectator’s relationship to what unfolds on screen and promises an ignited and heated discussion about morality and spectatorship. It is no doubt a difficult film to sit through and look at with straight-ahead gaze, but all these fidgets and emotional pain are worthwhile to go through.

Czech director Václav Marhoul created an immersive world of the day-to-day experience at the very bottom of the food chain in the Eastern Europe along Russia, Ukraine and Poland towards the bloody close of the Second World War. Beautifully shot with 35mm black and white and outstanding chiaroscuro, The Painted Bird is the meeting point between extreme cruelty and extreme beauty. This combination might make one cringe, but it is by no means gratuitous. The film does not endorse stylized violence designed to be consumed as entertainment à la Tarantino, but instead, it is deeply empathetic and unblinking ; as the protagonist goes through ordeal, the audience suffers together with him. Based on Jerzy Kosiński’s novel published in 1965, it follows the journey of The Boy, a Jewish stray, not comprehending the reason for his parents’ absence and roaming aimlessly from village to village, hoping to find home. His name is not revealed until the very end of the film; none of the adults he encounters bothers to know his name and The Boy remains wordless throughout the film (apart from a desperate cry of “I want to go home” while being violently pushed away by superstitious peasants’ farm forks towards the beginning). Initially, The Boy has been entrusted by his persecuted parents to a temperamental elderly farm lady, who soon dies and whose house is subsequently burnt by accident. It then marks the end of the snippet, which is followed by snippets of approximately the same length and about The Boy’s following encounter. With the end of each snippet and the beginning of a new one, we see the name of the next adult to meet in the intertitle, and our stomach would start to rumble out of anxiety, not knowing whether the next person would be benign or evil-spirited – exactly the same feeling as The Boy along his way. Not understanding international politics of that time and not understanding why he is treated meanly by some people and kindly on some rare occasions, The Boy represents every person who is being pulled into a conflict that they do not contribute to. From farmhouse to farmhouse, The Boy encounters men and women, young and old, civilians and soldier, religious and atheist, East Europeans, Germans and Russians – all suffering from the consequences of a full-scale war at their doorstep. Most of them show human vice to the extreme: jealousy, anger, paedophilia, selfishness, aggression and the list goes on, which is magnified through harsh circumstances of food shortage, loneliness, separation from the beloved one, brainwash by anti-semitist propaganda, and herd mentality.

Dreamy at times and outright poetic, it is a horror story of the wartime, mercilessly portraying a glimpse of what has been done and what human beings are capable of doing. It is about brutality inflicted upon the most vulnerable among us, and about individual choices between darkness and light. It probes deep into everyone’s conscience and asks some very difficult questions; at the time of our worst nightmarish scenario, what does it takes to remain humane? If we plant seeds of meanness, what would grow out of them?

Admittedly, Jerzy Kosiński’s homonymous novel was received with authorship controversy, accusation of plagiarism and questions over supposed autobiographical elements, but the film does not claim to be a truthful lived experience of one person. Rather, it is an assembled account of several survivors, embodied by one child’s odyssey. As the film’s production spans over several years, we see Petr Kotlar, who plays the role of The Boy, ages and becomes taller with the progression of the snippets. With extraordinary strength and charisma on screen, his natural performance by no means pales in comparison to the impressive supporting cast composed of Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier among others.

The film title comes from a scene in which the bird painted in colors by a professional bird catcher and released back to its flock is attacked to death by its own kin, who sees the painted bird as an intruder – a fitting title for a film which speaks about wartime atrocities on the surface and sets out to convey timeless messages.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film InternationalExberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.

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