The Unbelievable True Story of an Artist Who Formed a Lasting Bond With Her Thief
The new Hulu doc “The Painter and the Thief” tells the riveting tale of artist Barbora Kysilkova who, after two of her paintings were stolen, formed a powerful bond with her thief.
When two of her prized oil paintings—2013’s Chloe & Emma and 2014’s Swan Song—were stolen in 2015 from the Galleri Nobel in Oslo, Norway, Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova reacted in a most unconventional manner. Thanks to surveillance-camera footage, the two thieves had been identified and apprehended, but the large-scale items themselves (valued at approximately €20,000) hadn’t been recovered. Desperate to locate her works, Barbora opted for a bold course of action that would forever change her life: in court, she approached one of the criminals, Karl-Bertil Nordland, and asked him a simple question-cum-proposition: “Maybe we could meet some time? Of course all for the purpose that I’d love to make a portrait of you.”
Thus began an unlikely friendship between two seemingly disparate people tethered together, as they’d soon learn, by profound underlying connections. The Painter and the Thief, Benjamin Ree’s astonishing and moving documentary—premiering May 22 on Hulu, following its debut at this January’s Sundance Film Festival—recounts their story from both of their perspectives. In doing so, it conveys the trauma, need, addiction and obsession with death and destruction that made them kindred spirits, and begat a bond that proved rock-steady even in the face of further misfortune. It’s a true-crime tale reconfigured into a unique relationship saga, replete with twists, turns, heartbreak, failure and redemption that’s as surprising as it is well-earned.
Ree’s film begins in 2015, with Barbora marveling at the fact that Karl-Bertil and his accomplice took the time to remove the 200 nails that held her paintings to their wooden frames. Alas, during her subsequent meetings with Karl-Bertil, he continued to claim—as he had before the judge—that he had been so stoned out of his mind at the time of the theft that he couldn’t remember what he’d done with the canvases. This naturally frustrated Barbora, but not enough to quell her fascination with the man, a gangster whose torso boasted the tattooed message “Snitches Are A Dying Breed” (as well as stars on his shoulders that recall those decorating Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises), and whose life seemed to be a disaster marked by partying “from Wednesday to Wednesday.”
When Barbora completed her painting of Karl-Bertil and showed it to him, his reaction—caught on camera by director Ree—was nothing short of stunning. Slack-jawed with astonishment, the hardened junkie crook moaned, whimpered and then openly wept at the sight of Barbora’s handiwork. It was a sincere response of respect, gratitude and awe over the realization that the artist had taken the time to see him clearly, and authentically. As The Painter and the Thief subsequently demonstrates, Karl-Bertil returned that favor, befriending Barbora and, in the process, learning not only who she was, but her driving motivation—both in her professional life, and with regards to reaching out to him. What he discovered was a damaged soul still struggling to come to grips with a horrifying prior abusive relationship that she and her current beau Øystein had literally fled, and that had inspired in her a creative fixation on her own suffering, as well as that of others.
In dueling sequences in which Barbora and Karl-Bertil describe each other’s key qualities, The Painter and the Thief illustrates how the duo’s closeness was fostered by genuine interest and empathy. It was also solidified by their shared habit of risking their lives and livelihoods for their addictions (for him, drugs; for her, painting). The fact that Barbora overcame her horrifying past via Øystein’s love wound up serving as a model for her embrace of Karl-Bertil, an individual whom she believed she could save through dogged compassion. Consequently, even after Karl-Bertil almost perished in a car crash, struggled through months of rehabilitation to walk again courtesy of a broken back (among other ailments), and then served a year-long prison sentence, Barbora remained, steadfast, by his side.
The Painter and the Thief never once italicizes any of the threads uniting its subjects; on the contrary, it allows them to emerge and blossom organically through canny juxtapositions and a bifurcated focus that gives equal time to both of their different-yet-similar plights. Barbora recognizes both light and dark in Karl-Bertil, whose unhappy childhood gave way to early careers as a BMX rider, a teacher of special-needs kids, and a carpenter before he turned his attention to narcotics and crime. And he, in turn, sees those same shades in Barbora, a kind and generous woman whose desire to cope with her inner demons through art is so all-consuming that it threatens to lead to ruin, both for her current supportive relationship with Øystein and for her financial well-being, as past-due bills and rent payments begin mounting.
The sly complexity of The Painter and the Thief continues once Karl-Bertil goes to prison, where his development speaks to the transformative impact Barbora has had on his life. He’s a figure whose superficial contradictions—intelligent yet reckless, talented but self-sabotaging—make increasing sense when viewed in the context of his difficult life experiences. The same goes for Barbora’s fondness for him, born as it is from her intimate familiarity with unhealthy reactions to pain and misery. From the stigmata-esque marks that Karl-Bertil receives from his accident (and which entrance Barbora), to the contentious couples therapy sessions that Barbora attends with Øystein, the film is constantly revealing overt and subtle links between its central twosome, whose intertwined path is often rocky, and whose ultimate destination is far from preordained.
Salvation arrives in different forms at the conclusion of The Painter and the Thief, as Barbora and Karl-Bertil reclaim the very things they’d lost, while simultaneously maintaining the bedrock friendship they’d gained throughout this odyssey. Ending in full-circle fashion, the film finds a sense of unity and hope in its conjoined subjects, both of them scarred by thievery (of a literal and figurative sort) and healed by an understanding that no matter how badly the past screws us up, the present always affords us with new opportunities for transcendent communion—a lesson encapsulated by a final image that’s unbelievably unexpected, poignant, and altogether perfect.