While the human propensity for inflicting pain and suffering is seemingly endless, it’s not generally the daily bread of filmmaking. Although certainly strife, struggle, and sadness are a part of almost any film, most lean away from dwelling on such things. The Painted Bird, based on the 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosiński, takes the opposite track, by not only leaning into the most abject parts of human misery, but wallowing in them. Whether that makes it great art, or exploitative salaciousness, is rather up to the viewer.
The story follows a young Jewish boy (played by 9 year old first-time actor Petr Kotlár) sent to stay in the country with an ageing relative during the Holocaust. However, circumstances soon find him alone, wandering the forests and villages of the unnamed Eastern European country; with each new turn confronting some new level of abject misery or cruelty. But as often as he’s bullied, beaten or shunned as a Jew or a gypsy, he’s taken in as a form of cheap labour, or worse. During the films almost three hour runtime, he experiences almost every form of abuse imaginable, and witnesses levels of callousness, indifference, and hatred rarely seen onscreen.
What stops The Painted Bird from being dismissed out of hand, aside from its literary pedigree, is that it’s an astonishingly beautiful film. Shot in stark black and white, the cinematography and framing by Vladimír Smutný is nigh-on flawless. The story is also played out at a snail’s pace, never hurrying to the next scene, and told at times in near silence. It’s a film largely bereft of dialogue and, outside of bracketing pieces, free from non-diegetic music. What little spoken dialogue there is, comes in appropriate smatterings of Russian and German from characters playing soldiers on either side. The rest, and the majority, of the film is performed in Interslavic, to further blur the geographic lines of the story. Although this gives the film a particular quality, it also unfortunately has unfortunate side effects. Most notably the choice to have all of the dialogue from actors Harvey Keitel and Udo Kier dubbed over quite noticeably with voices that don’t fit them at all, despite their performances otherwise being fine.
That isn’t the end of the stunt-casting in the film either, although the rest acquit themselves vocally far better. While the likes of Julian Sands and Stellan Skarsgård both appear in random cameos, the more surprising appearances are from Barry Pepper and Aleksey Kravchenko. Pepper as a sort of Red Army cousin of the sniper he played in Saving Private Ryan, and Kravchenko as a soldier who shares a moment of understanding with the boy. It’s a meta scene which could barely be much more of a clear reference to the iconic role he played as a similarly traumatised youth in Come and See.
It’s a strange and fascinating experiment in filmmaking, although not one that every quite reaches the heights it aims for. Despite the beauty of the film, and some good performances, the sheer dragging sadness of it all becomes monotonous after a while. The lack of dialogue and context means that the grotesque poetry of the book’s prose is lost in a way that no skill of artful shooting can replace. The films apes and reaches out to be Come and See, or The Road, and in a way even becomes reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch‘s Dead Man. But each of those films had a compelling story, moments of hope or levity, and at least a clear aim for the protagonist. The boy in The Painted Bird has so little agency we become benumbed to his suffering, because it seems all but inevitable after even the first 20 minutes. As a result, the film never becomes truly good, and you leave it sad, tired, and unsatisfied despite the time investment.
At least, as some consolation, the Blu-ray also contains the feature length making-of documentary 11 Colours of the Bird. It provides plenty of insight into the creative process, and is a far more cheerful and pleasant viewing experience.
Available on Blu Ray from Mon 16 November 2020