Review: THE PAINTED BIRD, Spectacle of Horrors From a Child's Perspective

Stellan Skarsgaard, Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper, Julian Sands and Petr Kotlar star in Václav Marhoul's dramatic adaptation of a novel by Jerzy Kosiński.

Contributor; Slovakia (@martykudlac)
Review: THE PAINTED BIRD, Spectacle of Horrors From a Child's Perspective

The novel The Painted Bird (1965) made Jerzy Kosiński's writing career and ultimately broke it. The wanderings of a 6-year old protagonist against the worst display of man-manufactured atrocities during WWII were considered as authentic Kosiński experiences; The Painted Bird took on life as an actual autobiography.

The author did not initially set the record straight. The truth eventually reached the light of the day as curious investigation on Kosiński's (born Józef Lewinkopf) origins emerged, along with his rather cozy youth, despite the war-time circumstances. Therefore, the book received the mark of a controversial oeuvre for more than just one reason.

The Czech producer and director Václav Marhoul optioned the rights and spent 11 years and 17 versions of the script translating the grim coming-of-age tale into a big-screen spectacle of horrors. The Painted Bird became the first Czech film (the film is co-produced by two more countries - Slovakia and Ukraine) to compete in the main competition in Venice after 25 years. Furthermore, the Czech Film and Television Academy picked it as the country's bid for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.

Kosiński explained in the afterword that one of the reasons for such an unnerving and drastic depiction of the worst imaginable terror was the fact that some people kept downplaying the inhuman acts that actually took place during WWII. They considered the heinous deeds against human lives documented in newspapers merely a journalistic hunt for sensations and overall exaggeration to boost the sales. That would be a legitimate reason to write such a book, regardless of the high degree of fabulation.


Marhoul's adaptation emerges in rough times that mankind is facing, the film's logline being "the light is visible only in dark", which makes the whole cinematic ordeal all the more relevant and timeless. Walk-outs accompanied the Venice premiere last year, alleging that The Painted Bird is not for the faint of heart or stomach.

The producer-writer-director himself revealed in the pre-premiere talks that to adapt such distressing material, he had only two options: to expose the horrors in all their brutality or just imply the atrocities, leaving the rest to the limitless imagination of the audience. Rationally, he chose the latter one. The reports on walk-outs due to extreme imagery fanned and greased the gears of the film's PR, more than its actual reputation.

The Painted Bird is a massive survival and coming-of-age story against the backdrop of events of WWII in a supposedly Polish (the book was banned in the country for some time, though Marhoul had a tough luck finding Polish co-producers) or basically any other Central European countryside (the director opted to use a made-up language of interslavic), clocking almost three hours.

The film is divided into chapters, copying the book´s protagonist episodic encounters from the beginning of the war until the end. The nameless Jewish boy, played by Czech Roma boy Petr Kotlár in his first acting role, tries to make it alive from one emotionally or physically scarring experience to another, in the hope to see his family once again. The Painted Bird can be regarded as a perverse Alice in Wonderland.

In the book, the little Jewish boy is taken for a gypsy child by superstitious villagers, who fear his supernatural powers. The straightforward xenophobia certainly makes it easier to call for unabashed pedicide. Throughout the journey, his opinions on life, mankind and God crystallize and congeal. However, he is not solely the one who absorbs the pain in its wild and rich variety; the boy strikes back on at least two occasions when he feels he is being treated unfairly, to put it mildly (one crucial scene is omitted from the book when the boy causes a tragedy).

The film adaptation lacks the numerous soliloquies by the protagonist, depicting how his worldview is being shaped by drastic situations. Marhoul leaves the guessing to the audience to interpret the boy's acts, although knowledge of the book makes the whole film much easier to process, which means the film, detached from its source material, offers a fairly different experience.

The display of intense brutality creates an aura of exploitation regarding the actual narrative arc or overall dramaturgy (sights of shock, amazement or statements on the ridiculousness have accompanied public screenings). Trying to compress the story into a tighter plot-driven structure (ergo being faithful as much as possible to the book's narrative arc) results in an augmented theater of cruelty and surreal atrocities, painfully illustrating the lack of inhibitions of any kind.


The Painted Bird, in its writing and subsequent audiovisual incarnation, is described as a Holocaust story despite the fact that there is no implication of the actual Holocaust in the abject behavior and the smorgasbord of deviations and taboos (one brief scene features train deportation to a death camp).

The simple comparison to, for example, László Nemes' Son of Saul exposes a wide rift between a Holocaust film and a film set loosely against the backdrop of the Holocaust. In this sense, The Painted Bird is more of a WWII drama than a Holocaust film, as connotations about the war top those of the Holocaust in the film. The book ponders anti-Semitism with higher frequency and explicitness.

The period setting tweaks the whole perception of the story, since stripped of the historical references, the film would be classified along the lines of so-called extreme cinema. In this sense, The Painted Bird is a more of a soft-core artsploitation film, however, not fetishizing the rich variety of aberrations for sensational purposes but oversaturating the cinema of realism with extremes out of symbolic and mythological reasons, although the war in progress serves basically as a license and trigger for brazen nihilism of those living on the fringes of the conflict.


The cinematography of Vladimír Smutný evokes Fred Kelemen's crisp lensing in Béla Tarr´s dramas and their aesthetics mostly in the beginning. A black and white shot of a shed in countryside reinvigorates the memory of The Turin's Horse. After the initial scenes, the camera becomes livelier, as shorter takes become more prominent, which is also accented by the editing.

Unlike Tarr's melancholic ruminations, The Painted Bird is defined by its acts and thus is more action-driven regarding characters and space. The cinematographer and editor carefully conceal all the transgressions (except murder or killing), leaving viewers' imagination to finish the scenes with very little space for fantasy.

Kosiński's novel and its adaptation are relevant for the current tumultuous times of crisis, polarized society and raging dehumanization. The volume and intensity of abominations in the three-hour running time basically normalize terror as it remains the sole constant of the film and its basic discourse of vocal xenophobia, disorder, moral and physical decay.

IFC Films will release the film in select theaters, Digital, and Cable VOD on Friday, July 17, 2020. Visit the official site for more information.

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Barry Pepperczech republicHarvey KeitelIFC FilmsJerzy KosinskiStellan SkarsgårdUdo KierVáclav Marhoul

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