There are two truths that must be understood before embarking on the journey that is The Painted Bird. The first is that it is a work of poetic beauty; director Vaclav Marhoul, working from the controversial book from writer Jerzy Kosinski, has made a stunning and awe-inspiring film that explores the depravity of the human soul. Which brings me to the second truth: The Painted Bird is in no way an easy watch. In fact, it is one of the most difficult films I’ve seen in recent years.
The first hour of the film, which follows a young boy making his way from one terrible situation to the next during the height of World War II, is a portrait of torture and abuse the likes of which are rarely seen on screen. And it only gets worse from there. There are rapes, beatings, and eye gougings; the first scene alone finds our young protagonist, Joska (Petr Kotlar), being chased by unseen villains, who eventually burn his beloved pet ferret alive.
As a tone setter, you couldn’t do much better. Marhoul keeps his cinematic eye placed squarely into the horror of young Joska’s world and rarely allows his audience a moment’s peace to come down from and process the horror we’ve just witnessed. The abuse and terror compound into a narrative musing on what the mind and spirit can take as well as what the mind and spirit can do.
Kosinski’s book, billed as an autobiography, has been the subject of much debate since its release in 1965; most scholars today view the book as a work of fiction, though one informed by actual events and stories Kosinski heard about (if not lived) over the years. Even if we accept that the authenticity of the story is dubious, however, the impact of The Painted Bird as cinema hardly feels lessened.
Whether its true or not doesn’t belie Marhoul’s intents as director. We’re meant to gaze deep into the horrifying abyss and see what man may be capable of. The unflinching gaze of Marhoul forces us to confront the realities of those who lived through the years of the Holocaust hiding from Nazis. Perhaps Joska’s experience’s here don’t mirror any one particular person but even taken as an amalgam we can begin to bare witness to the atrocities committed in the dark swirl of Hitler’s atrocities.
Most of Joska’s tormentors are those who offered him help, tempting him with respite before turning on him (or others) with vicious brutality. Marhoul doesn’t let us look away as torture after torture is either inflicted upon or witness by young Joska. It’s almost too much. The brutality is such that it’s easy to become numb to its effects. That alone serves a purpose.
In an age where we must be shocked into action, The Painted Bird explores how easy it is to get complacent and how little it takes to numb us to realities. Hardly any of the villains in the film are who you’d expect the villains of a World War II story to be. They’re kindly villagers, old men, old women, and just regular people. In a where atrocity is normalized, the normal are atrocious.
On that level, The Painted Bird is a stunning, incomparable film. It pulsates with an emotional resonance that’s difficult to ignore. Each new brutality inflicted upon Joska takes us deeper into the darkest shadows of the human soul. It also makes for an intensely difficult film to watch. It’s best to know what you’re getting into before starting The Painted Bird and, even then, it might still prove to be too much.
It was almost too much for me, and at more than one point I couldn’t help but wonder if I really needed to be watching this. Glad as I am that I ultimately powered through, I wouldn’t blame anyone for having to turn it off and find something else. As it stands, The Painted Bird is probably the best film that I hope I never have to endure ever again.
The Painted Bird is now available on VOD and playing in select theaters.