“THE PAINTED BIRD”— An Epic of Misery


An Epic of Misery

Amos Lassen

When I was a high schooler, the book to be read was Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird” and it affected me deeply. I was not sure that I wanted a repeat of that so the idea of seeing a film based on it was something  I was very unsure about. Nonetheless, I went to see it and, sure enough, there I sat through three hours of “epic misery.”

Set in the Czech Republic during the end of WWII, we meet a young Jewish boy on an odyssey to find his family, suffering indignity after indignity on the way there. Nearly all human deprivation is here including rape, murder, bestiality and what makes this so bad it that it is all inevitable and I knew that. This is a difficult, brutal watch and while I recommend this film, it is a difficult movie to defend. When I say an “epic of misery”, I am referring to the subject matter and not the movie.  but would find difficult to defend if challenged.

Due to its strange plumage, the painted bird is unlike others and it makes the other birds get jealous. They surround the painted bird, and they kill it. This suggests that due to the savagery of Central Europe during WWII, anything that is different  whether it be Slavic, gay, gypsy, or Jewish, it must be surrounded and bullied and ultimately destroyed. 

The young boy is unnamed (Petr Kotlar) and is one such painted bird. The film starts with him holding a ferret while running through the woods, being chased by other boys. They beat him up and burn his pet to death. He then comes home to his aunt, who tells him it’s his fault. Things get worse from there. 

It turns out that the boy has been sent away to the countryside by his parents for his own protection. When his aunt dies, he is completely adrift, relying on the kindness of strangers to get by. The big problem is that these strangers are evil and each one finds a new way to abuse him. The film is  completely unsentimental and incredibly difficult watch  even though its disturbing scenes aren’t merely there to exploit or titillate, but to lay witness to the horrors of history. 

The story is told episodically with each chapter bookmarked by one or two names. Each one brings a new sense of dread. The brilliance of the screenplay is how each episode seems to change the young lad just a bit, showing how one’s view on life can be completely altered by experience. 

Kotlar gives a great child performance in the simple and pure way he interprets the role. He really immerses us into the young boy’s life. The three hour length is matched by the epic 35mm black-and-white-cinematography. Making use of a huge anamorphic widescreen, the boy is often situated to the side of the frame while horrific things going on in the background, as if to stress his unwilling participation in a world that is coming apart. Unlike the cinematography, the film’s moral conclusions are a complete grey zone, depicting horrific things that show how terrible the war was and what the disease of antisemitism led to without no editorializing or telling us how to feel. We  can only watch and watch and watch and feel powerless to stop the terrible things from happening. 

The film makes it absolutely clear that antisemitism was not just limited to the Nazis. Nearly everyone seems to hate the young lad, simply because of his birth. Anti-Semitism doesn’t end with the Nazi’s demise either; the transition to peacetime does little to change the locals’ hatred of Jews. Coming at a time when hatred of Jewish people seems on the rise and being weaponized, we see here the inevitable end of such hate. While it definitely courts controversy, there is a method to such relentless misery. This is the story of survival and the kind of story we never should have to hear or experience again.

Vaclav Marhoul directed this heart-wrenching Czech Republic-Ukraine-Slovakia co-production. Making explicit the young protagonist’s Jewish background, Marhoul’s screenplay shows us the horrors of the Holocaust through the dark, somber eyes of the boy wandering from village to village and from one brutality to another.

As in the book, the shock effect of coldly detailed incest, bestiality and sexual abuse, beatings, killings and mutilation is nonstop. The evil is presented in a dismaying crescendo of horror that offers no escape.

Setting off through the woods, the  boy comes to a village of ignorant Catholic peasants who superstitiously see the devil in him or, at the very least, a vampire. The witchy Olga, who acts as a local doctor, takes the little boy on as her assistant/slave and even saves him from the plague by burying him in the ground up to his neck. Then a man who doesn’t like his looks pushes him in the river and he floats downstream to his next encounter with the Miller  whose insane jealousy over the looks exchanged by his wife and his hired hand is bound to end badly, and it does  and the boy escapes.

The theme of sexual perversion so prominent in the book comes in the Boy’s meeting with a good-hearted old bird-catcher who meets regularly with a voluptuous, half-mad girl for a tumble in the fields..

And so it goes. Wherever the Boy asks for shelter, he witnesses immense cruelty born of ignorance, superstition and plain hatred of the Other. His innocence is put to death along with the animals who are wantonly killed by the peasants. It is the bird-catcher who teaches him a terrible lesson when he paints a small songbird white and releases it back into its flock. It is ripped to pieces because it is different from the others.

The courageous young hero is abused by both men and women. He is saved from the Gestapo by a sick old priest played but soon farmed out to a creepy pedophile who tortures him relentlessly until the boy finally liberates himself in a stomach-churner. Fortunately, Marhoul keeps the worst violence either offscreen or out of focus in the background, letting the viewer’s imagination supply the details.

This is also true of the boy’s seduction by a lovely nymphomaniac who offers him shelter. When her aged husband (or father?) dies, she looks lustfully at the prepubescent boy. Her outrage at his inability to satisfy her needs leads to a horrible revenge scene involving a goat. Even worse, perhaps, is her cruel disregard for this child’s feelings of tenderness and love, which we watch being progressively destroyed as the story goes on, along with his humanity and the taboo against killing. The result is obvious in the final scenes, when the war is over but the heart is cold.  

The arrival of the Red Cavalry at a village sees them brutally exterminate the inhabitants for sport. The Cossacks knock the boy out with alcohol and hog-tie him for the Germans as a present. He arrives in the German camp with a note that he’s Jewish, and the commandant asks for a volunteer to shoot him. Fortunately, the lot falls to war-weary good soldier Hans.

Though he escapes, the boy witnesses one of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the film, the passage through the fields of a freight train loaded with Jews, on its way to a concentration camp. Some of them knock a hole in the side of a carriage and jump off the train, only to be mowed down by the German guards. Later, the local peasants loot the corpses of their goods and clothes — as does the boy, who takes the boots of a dying boy with pity in his eyes.

The decision to shoot in black and white gives depth to the essential imagery. Most of the dialogue was shot in an invented Slavic Esperanto, with a bit of Czech, Russian and German.

A film about suffering can feel gratuitous. We long for relief and for humor and humanity. Sometimes, it just doesn’t come. “The poetry of suffering is both abhorrent and beautiful, disgusting and fascinating, excessive and vitally necessary.” The film corrects the view that the Holocaust only happened in the confines of Auschwitz and similar death camps. The majority of the victims of the Holocaust were murdered before Auschwitz ever became operational. It took place in the woods and villages, in the fields and by the rivers. It grew out of the hatred in people’s hearts, a hatred that no longer feels like it resides safely in history.

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