The Painted Bird (2019)

The Painted Bird first published by

Some way into Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, the young Boy (Petr Kotlár) who is its main character watches the old birdcatcher Lekh (Lech Dyblik) applying paint to the wings of a captured bird, and releasing it into the air. The bird flies up to join its flock but, no longer recognised because of these strangely coloured feathers, it is rounded on and attacked en masse by its own and falls dead out of the sky at the Boy’s feet. Although never spelt out, this incident, from which Václav Marhoul’s film – and Jerzy Kosiński’s controversial 1965 novel of the same name – takes its title, is also a parable. For the Boy too has been separated from his mother and father, and his harrowing wartime adventures will mark him forever, making the homecoming for which he craves seem ever more improbable.

Chickens, crows, dogs, cats, cows, horses, rats, sheep, goats – animals abound in The Painted Bird, whether exploited as objects, labour, food, weapons, sexual aids, or occasionally even treated with kindness – and so these creatures help bring into focus the barely concealed bestiality of the human animal. For Marhoul’s film turns the grey – or, more strictly, black-and-white – interzone between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia into a nightmarish locus of surreal fable. In the opening scene, the Boy races through the forest clutching a pet stoat for dear life, only to be tackled to the ground by a gang of locals roughly his age who douse the animal in fuel and set fire to it in front of his horrified eyes. This represents not only, from the very outset, the Boy’s loss of innocence, but also the first of many Holocaust images in a film which, without ever actually showing us the camps and the ovens, alludes to them repeatedly. Shortly after this scene, the farmstead where the Boy has been entrusted to stay with his ‘auntie’ Marta (Nina Šunevič) is also in flames, and in case the evocation of the Shoah is missed, we see a German warplane flying above the smouldering embers of this domestic space. There are also eventually transport trains and tattooed numbers (like paint on a bird) here, serving as more specific signifiers of systematic genocide, and there is even the graphic depiction of a village massacre; but for the most part, Marhoul uses smaller dramas of human abuse, outrage and atrocity to allegorise the conditions – indeed, the human condition – from which something as unspeakable as the Final Solution was able to grow and flourish. This episodic traveller’s tale, formally divided into headed chapters, is full of unconscionable events, staged as a carnival of cruelty. 

“I’m going home! I want to go home!” the Boy will plead in vain with the local villagers who are beating him. Xenophobic and superstitious, they believe that this outsider in their midst must be in league with the devil, and are happy to scapegoat him for their own petty parochial problems. It is the politics of the Third Reich, encapsulated. These words mark his journey as an odyssey of sorts, and the Boy himself as a Telemachus figure on a quest to find his father which is also a nostalgic rite of passage. Yet, uttered at the the beginning of the Boy’s epic odyssey, the words will also be the very last that we hear him voice to any human (although he will later address a horse, as abandoned and broken as himself). Unlike Homer’s adolescent hero, the Boy has lost not merely his father but his very powers of speech (whether through circumstance or choice), and so bears mute, traumatised witness to the infernal events unfolding around him. As with Elem Klimov’s similar and similarly harrowing Come and See (1985) – whose star, Aleksei Kravchenko, has a brief cameo here – the horror of what is happening is constantly written on the Boy’s face. 

The Boy himself remains a cypher. We may in the end learn his name, but his reticence ensures that we are never sure where he has come from, what his background is, or even if he ever truly finds his own family again. What is clear, however, is that this picaresque protagonist – variously labelled by others a Jew and a Gypsy – repeatedly changes guise, at different points wearing the clothes of a miller’s dead son, of a dying Jewish child, of an altar boy and of a Red Army soldier. Readily slipping from one context to the next, the Boy must constantly adapt to survive, while also being altered and scarred by his experiences, so that his ‘true’ identity remains Protean – an Everyman, or at least Everyboy, for the shifting borders and compromised allegiances of the Second World War. At the same time, the people that he encounters represent a bizarre ensemble of recognisable faces – Udo Kier as the aggressively jealous miller, Stellan Skarsgård as a sympathetic Nazi, Harvey Keitel as an ailing priest, Julian Sands as a brutal paedophile, Barry Pepper as a respectful Red Army sniper with an Old Testament attitude towards vengeance. The attachment of these familiar actors, which no doubt helped secure funding for the film, may risk undermining its carefully constructed illusion of reality – as, at one point, does a Wilhelm scream, whose distinctive sound has become too ironised to be taken seriously. Yet these cameos also discomfit the viewer: by breaking through the distance of the Second World War setting, they show that all these historical abominations can come with a contemporary face, and so refuse to let us off the hook from this most accusatory depiction of humanity at its worst.

The Painted Bird is a long gruelling descent, as we watch the Boy occasionally meeting with the benevolence and generosity of others, but mostly being subjected to a succession of monstrous enormities that no child, or indeed adult, should ever have to endure. Without question all these encounters change the Boy, turning him into someone who works hard, is helpful and stands up to bullies, as well as a thief, a vandal and even a cold-blooded murderer. In his displacement and dehumanisation, we can also see the devastation of an entire continent that has become divided by fascisms both personal and national. It is a very tough watch, with even its rare glimpses of warmth and hope coming highly qualified. For even if, in the end, the bird flies free, the damage painted on its flesh may be too great for it ever to be able to make a welcome return to the flock. 

Summary: Václav Marhoul’s harrowing odyssey sets a young Boy journeying through a Second World War landscape, all at once real and like a fable

Anton Bitel