Countless adaptations of WW2 literature exist in cinema. Come and See, The Bunker, Truman, Patton, HBOs seminal mini series Band of Brothers, the list is seemingly infinite. War, spies, the drama and bloodshed of heroes, villains, and the horrors of the Nazi and Imperial Japanese occupations.
What you almost never see is the aftermath, the wind down, and the lasting impact the war had on the thousands of innocents across Europe, and Eastern Europe in particular. Well, director Václav Marhoul has brought us that in his punishing, heart rending adaptation of Jerzy Kosiriski’s post WW2 novel, The Painted Bird.
The Painted Bird follows a nameless Boy (Petr Kotlar) as he wanders through the countryside and cities of war torn Eastern Europe after the death of his aunt and destruction of their farm house, in search of first his family, then a home, then…he doesn’t know. Along the way he meets, discovers, and is taken in by several people for whom each chapter in the film is named for, and sees how the war has changed or enabled them to be the dregs or spots of sunlight left in humanity.
Calling this film a war movie would be a mistake. Calling it a meditation would too, in my opinion, be a mistake. The Painted Bird in all its horror and darkness is a Truth. A truth of how war abandons, spits out, and traumatizes children. A truth of the abject vileness and evil of humanity. A truth also, however, in how even when these things strive to beat humanity out of us, the strength in the goodness that can still show through in the unlikeliest of people. “Fair is foul and foul is fair,” the oft quoted Shakesperian adage from Macbeth proves abundantly true in this story. More often than not, the most kind, beautiful, or benign looking people who come into the Boy’s life are the ones who harm him most, whether through rape, beatings, attempted murder, or neglect. On the other hand, some of the most assumedly vile and cruel people are the same that offer him the most compassion, protection, and a potential salvation of the little spirit left in him as we slowly watch him descend into apathy and potential sociopathy.
For saying very little, almost nothing at all in fact, Kotlar is an incredibly dynamic force on screen. He emotes so much with so little, and has incredible instincts for a child of his age in a film of this tonality. You want him to finally have a release so desperately, to have rest, an end to the seemingly endless torrent of suffering that falls like so many dominoes around him, and when he seems like his spirit is finally broken and lost, you crave for it to come back to him even as he does horrible things. The Boy is any child, any traumatized war victim regardless of age, and he and Kotlar’s performance grips at the very core of our empathetic nature and makes you sick at the suffering and pain he is made to endure, through no fault of his own but being different, a Jew in the 40s, a painted bird who the flock turns on and kills for being made into an enemy by an indifferent, cruel outsider; and we see so many painted birds.
In fact, basically anyone who is seen as socially different or unacceptable is often tortured and/or murdered in front of his eyes, from a farmhand who threatens the ego of a miller enough to earn a gruesome mutilation, to a promiscuous woman who is violated by older women with a vodka bottle, to the dead Jewish people he sees shot down by Nazi soldiers, the painted birds are beaten and battered until they die and fall into their lonely graves.
The cinematography and sound design helps drive this point home, even in the way the lighting alters something so simple as the shadows playing along a beautiful girl’s face, making her formerly kind smile into a cruel sneer. The lack of color in the film allows us to focus on everything in hyper-detail, allowing the emotional acting of otherwise silent characters like the Boy shine in the forefront where they may have been drowned out by distractions in a colorized format, as well as evoking the mood and tone of classic WW2 newsreel and documentary footage. It also keeps a slight blockade between the violence and cruelty displayed on screen and the viewer. There is so much going on at any given time, and so much of it horrific, on so many primal levels, that if even a fraction of it had been in full-color, it would have been entirely too much; nigh unwatchable in perfect honesty.
At the same time, there is no peppy soundtrack or backing orchestra to keep us detached and distract us from the brutality on screen. The bread and butter of this film’s tension is the masterful uses of long, uncomfortable, horrible blocks of silence that feel like you should be hearing nails on a chalkboard. They make you beg for sound, and when you finally get it, more often than not you beg for the silence once more. Anything to take you away from the tragic journey of this young, naive, and slowly broken child.
But, none of this would coalesce into the masterpiece that is The Painted Bird without one very important detail: this film was made by Eastern Europeans, in Eastern Europe, and the dialogue is, unless it comes from outside invading forces, Eastern European dialects and languages. This is because you could not make a film like this in the US, Western Europe, hell even Germany.
The Painted Bird is a Slavic film in every sense, down to the bones of its skeleton and the soul of its inspiration: the understanding of a shared trauma, crossing countries, dialects, and souls. The shared pain and suffering of those who were in the camps, occupied first by Germany, then Russia, never their own again until the 1980s, and still called backwards and treated like jokes. In the post war period, there was no illusion of glorious celebration, Allied parties and kissing girls in the street. Cities were decimated, Warsaw was razed, the Czech republic had been brutalized, one could go on and honestly, documentaries in the West rarely do. It’s a blip, as though the landmass between Germany and Russia is a miasma of strange languages and stranger customs that don’t bear repeating, whose stories of their own post war suffering and struggle with the horrific aftermath of war have scarcely merited an adaptation worthy of winning something like Best Cinematography at Tribeca 2020. It’s time. It has been time, and the quality of this film has absolutely been worth the wait.
Like the Boy who looks silently at the concentration camp survivor’s tattoo and acknowledges their shared struggle by at last writing his real, Jewish name on the frost in a nameless bus on a nameless road in the middle of nowhere, The Painted Bird is an olive branch from us to those long past. We remember, we understand, we share your suffering and doubt and pain, even in the uncertainty of now. All of us, painted birds.
The Painted Bird becomes available on VOD 7/15/2020