Have you ever had to look away from the screen while watching a movie because you couldn’t bear to see what happened next? Do you have a threshold tolerance level of what you will watch before you become outraged or repulsed and walk out of a film? There have certainly been controversial movies over the years – both art and exploitation features – that have tested the limits of what viewers will watch. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002), Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (19776), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) are just a few of the more famous offenders that have provoked heated debates over censorship and creative expression. We now have a new test case – The Painted Bird (2019), Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul’s big-screen adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s dark masterpiece from 1965.
Kosinski’s novel recounts a harrowing tale about a young boy placed in foster care by his parents during World War II. Set in an unspecified Eastern European location, the protagonist is soon left to fend for himself amid a rural landscape of superstitious villagers, predators and armed invaders from German and Russia. Originally Kosinski led readers to believe that the novel was a thinly disguised autobiography of his own experiences in Poland during the war based on statements he made about his childhood. Some suspected that he had based the story on the wartime experiences of his childhood friend Roman Polanski, who had lived with several families in the countryside after his parents were sent to concentration camps.
In recent years it has been revealed that The Painted Bird is a work of pure fiction but controversy has surrounded it and Kosinski ever since the novel first garnered international acclaim. Claims of plagiarism over the authorship of both The Painted Bird and Being There have followed him for years as well as accusations of manufacturing false narratives about himself. There was an undeniable dark side to the mercurial, womanizing celebrity and talk show fixture that eventually emerged after his suicide in 1991 but despite the enigma that is Kosinski, no one can deny the power of The Painted Bird.
I read the novel more than forty years ago and images conjured up from Kosinski’s prose have stayed with me for years, all of them nightmarish and haunting. His terse episodic narrative is not only deeply compelling but has an almost cinematic style which makes a film adaptation unnecessary. Yet Vaclav Marhoul has spent almost a decade bringing Kosinski’s novel to the screen and the result is a two hour and forty-nine minute epic, stunningly photographed in black and white by award winning cinematographer Vladimir Smutny (Kolya) and featuring an all-star cast of Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Udo Kier, Barry Pepper and others. The boy, the film’s much-abused protagonist, is played by newcomer Petr Kotlar, who was spotted on a city street by the director and cast in the film.
Marhoul’s adaptation of The Painted Bird is remarkably faithful to the tone and storyline of the novel despite having to omit certain details and incidents for length. But what is lost in the translation from book to film is the protagonist’s attempts to process what is happening to himself as he wanders from one horrific encounter to the next. The novel is narrated by the boy so we know his inner thoughts and motivations but in the film there is no narrator. Instead the young actor is practically mute and functions as a human receptacle of pain, suffering and humiliation. Terrible things happen to him but we are denied access to his thoughts so he remains a complete cipher.
As a result The Painted Bird becomes a catalogue of atrocities which are dehumanizing and increasingly meaningless as the film proceeds from one vignette to the next. The fact that the protagonist is Jewish seems a minor point since any stranger found wandering alone is viewed as an outsider and one to be feared in this amoral universe. The opening scene sets the mood as the boy attempts to outrun a group of bullies who beat him and set his small dog on fire. The director has said in interviews that no animals were harmed in the making of the film but this scene and others involving animal deaths are so realistic that they are beyond cruel.
The same is true of the fate of numerous human victims as witnessed by the boy. A miller’s assistant has his eyes gouged out with a spoon, a village whore is assaulted by women in her village who ram a huge glass bottle into her vagina, Jewish prisoners escaping from a train are massacred including a young woman and her baby who are shot at point blank range and so on. Viewing all of this through the eyes of the young protagonist should create a huge sense of empathy for him and the victims but instead I found Marhoul’s approach strangely detached and almost clinical in its depiction. There is no real character development due to the vignette-like structure and so the events become a numbing catalogue that require the viewer to make sense of it all. The fact that Petr Kotlar is a neophyte actor doesn’t help but even a skilled child performer would have had a difficult time conveying depth and complexity in this role as conceived by the director.
While The Painted Bird never becomes as grueling or as explicit as Pasolini’s Salo, it still feels manipulative by the very nature of dramatizing some of the more notorious passages from Kosinski’s book. One film critic, who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival, compared it to a “torture porn” art film but I wouldn’t go that far. Still, it raises troubling issues. Do we become more inured to violence by seeing it? Do the depictions enhance our understanding of the behavior on display? I was relieved to see that the boy’s rape by a pedophile was not shown; nor do we witness the sex offender’s death from being devoured by rats. But the cruelty is still unrelenting. The director emphatically states that The Painted Bird is “not about the Holocaust” but it is about genocide and no one is spared. Peasants, Jews, Cossacks, Russian and German soldiers and animals are suffer equally.
On the positive side, the black and white cinematography does transport the viewer to another time and place, one that reminds me of the wild natural beauty and bucolic landscapes in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1966). There is also no music score but none was needed since the sound design is highly immersive and adds genuine tension and drama to specific scenes. The mixture of nonprofessional actors and cameo turns by actors like Harvey Keitel is seamless and creates a Bruegel-like tapestry of diverse but authentically-realized characters instead of being a distraction.
And the ending of The Painted Bird offers a brief glimmer of hope for the traumatized protagonist but it doesn’t really provide a satisfying emotional catharsis for viewers who have suffered through the almost three hour ordeal. What is the point of all this? Is survival at all costs worth losing one’s humanity in the process? If there is a message to the film, it would be the polar opposite of what Anne Frank once wrote in her diary, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” In Kosinski’s view of the world and this film version, evil is inherent in human nature and it takes a chaotic event like a world war to bring out the worst in mankind. The decision for the moviegoer is to watch or not to watch. But if you want to see a much more poetic, visually dynamic and emotionally engaging film with a similar theme and storyline, I recommend Russian director Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985).
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