Czech director Václav Mahoul’s The Painted Bird is a version of Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel of the same name. Kosiński was a fascinating and controversial character, dazzlingly brilliant but also perhaps one of the great imposters of the twentieth century, a defector from socialist Poland to the US in the late 1950s who became the toast of the North American literary world. His novels, especially his masterpiece Steps (1968) are unremittingly bleak and clinical takes on the darkness of human desires told in a series of coldly florid vignettes. Mahoul’s film follows its source matter closely, both in terms of its structure and its sombre beauty.
Constructed around the wanderings of an orphaned Jewish boy in the countryside of an unnamed central European country as the Second World War ends, the film charts the ways in which he is subjected and bears witness to a panoply of brutality. The episodic and allegorical nature of the story, the lack of narrative tension and character arc in combination with the film’s subject matter and nearly three-hour running time may mean it proves a forbidding prospect for some viewers. One of the film’s key elements of unintentional tension actually derives from the wholly aesthetically, if not commercially, unnecessary use of a number of Anglophone actors.
Their silent, intense staring in lieu of having them speak a non-English language can prove distracting, but the film also contains a number of bravura set pieces that linger in the mind, from the painted bird sequence that gives the film its title, to the Cossack attack on a peasant village and on to jolting scenes with a bunker full of rats and a sacrificial goat, all of it wrapped up in a bracingly lush widescreen and deep focus black and white.
The film caused the now de-rigueur walkouts at Cannes, but there is nothing sensationalistic or exploitative in its depiction of the extremes of human desire, cruelty, and thirst for revenge. It is possibly the case that the problem some viewers had with it is precisely that the film isn’t a cheap exercise in audience-baiting and B-Movie grand-guignol theatrics designed to titillate the jaded palettes of middle-class cinephiles. Instead, it rightly and soberly deploys elements of the grotesque in order to command equal measures of horror, pity, and a kind of distressing wonderment, offering up a Bruegelian vision of the middle-European peasantry as a deep substrate of medieval superstition. Kosiński and by extension Mahoul’s pessimism is expressed through the central metaphor of the painted bird. A farmer paints a bird’s wings and returns it to its flock, but now it is perceived as an invader, an ‘other’, and turned upon and killed. The group depends on identifying the exception and on cohering around the persecution and expulsion of that other. The bird falls dead at the boy’s feet; as above, so below.
The remorselessness of the boy’s journey is only occasionally leavened by acts of clemency, mostly on the part of older, military father figures. In the film’s conclusion he is reunited with his real father and the final sequence has the child, who has been rendered mute by his ordeal, writing his name in the condensation on a bus window as he gazes at the numbers tattooed on his father’s wrist. The image sets up a complex interplay between the evanescence of a single life and the permanent and seemingly immutable structure of antisemitism.
While The Painted Bird is set at the end of the Second World War, there are obvious parallels with the present moment, especially in a time of rising and established populism, the reassertion of both religious principles in politics and the growth of an already entrenched antisemitism. The film also stands therefore as a rebuke to a certain liberal confidence that particular strains of pre- or anti-modern thought have been permanently vanquished. It may well have been these additional resonances that caused so much discontent at Cannes — and in that sense the film serves as a vital and chastening reminder of what Europe should never assume simply cannot return.