TORONTO—It’s a little surprising that a fair number of brutal scenes in The Painted Bird, Václav Marhoul’s grim Holocaust epic, provoked—according to press reports—numerous filmgoers to run to the exits during its recent premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The spectacle of horrified, even scandalized festivalgoers makes one wonder if these ticketholders bothered to read the late Jerzy Kosinski’s source novel, which includes just about all of the brutal incidents depicted in Marhoul’s film. Or perhaps these disgruntled spectators have never seen equally wrenching Holocaust films or searing World War II movies such as Laszlo Nemes’s Son of Saul or Elem Klimov’s Come and See.
Although only a handful of viewers fled the Toronto International Film Festival’s press screening on Sunday, it’s clear that many members of the more hardened press corps had mixed feelings concerning the film. Viewed out of context, it’s no doubt true that The Painted Bird might seem no more than a litany of horrors. In a scene cited by many reviewers, a deranged miller (played by Udo Kier, an actor who specializes in eccentrics and psychotics), wields a spoon and tears out the eyes of a young man he suspects desires his wife—and then serves the severed eyeballs to his cats. (The scene faithfully replicates a scene in the novel.) But this admittedly gory interlude is not an arbitrarily repellent scene in a horror film; it demonstrates how war and genocide drove the inhabitants of Eastern Europe stark-raving mad.
Shot in gorgeous black and white CinemaScope (the beauty of the images serve as ironic counterpoint to the repellent behavior of many of the characters), the film is a darkly picaresque tale of a mute pre-adolescent Jewish boy’s journey (“The Boy,” played by a non-professional newcomer, Petr Kotlar) through Nazi-occupied Europe. As in the novel, Marhoul’s film doesn’t specify a particular national backdrop. (Much of the film, however, was shot in Ukraine). To convey the aura of geographical nebulousness vital to Kosinski’s novel, the dialogue is spoken in an argot invented for the film—Trans-Slavic, or what is also labeled Slavic Esperanto. From this vantage point, the devastating events of the narrative can’t be attributed to any particular national character, but are the result of the killing fields (or what historian Timothy Snyder termed “Bloodlands”; Marhoul cites Snyder’s historical survey of the same name as a major influence) that resulted in the deaths of millions of civilians as Hitler and Stalin vied for supremacy during the Second World War.
As “The Boy” traverses the countryside in search of refuge from the urban milieu, where he surely would have been identified as a Jew and then killed, the film takes on the tenor of a macabre fairy tale. Some of the rural folk “The Boy” meets along the way are clearly consumed with irrational hatred—especially the woman who is convinced that her young visitor is afflicted by vampirism and makes him her slave. At the very moment that a sympathetic priest (played by Harvey Keitel!) takes pity on the young protagonist, the cleric turns him over to a pedophile named Garbos (Julian Sands, as a character that proves as malevolent as Kier’s miller), who repeatedly rapes his young charge. It’s almost as if this pre-adolescent witness to history must proceed through concentric circles of hell before being redeemed—and reunited with his father.
In Kosinski’s later years, he was bedeviled by accusations that he falsely claimed that the experiences recounted in the novel were autobiographical—and that his shaky English at the time of the book’s publication led him to plagiarize various Polish sources. Now that the dust has settled, it’s possible to view Marhoul’s film as a supremely faithful adaptation, even though, admittedly, it fails to reach the artistic heights of other Czech or Polish films that tackle the same terrain. While The Painted Bird may not be the easiest film to sit through, it’s certainly not an example of gratuitous sensationalism.