Beauty and cruelty in black and white

Czech film director Václav Marhoul speaks about his film 'The Painted Bird'


There are not many films that cause audiences to walk out during their première. But at last year’s Venice Film Festival, The Painted Bird did just that. According to reports, some viewers fell over each other in their desperation to escape the film’s brutal scenes, which include eye gouging with a spoon. Others made to leave, only to find the exit doors locked. One newspaper described the film as a “panoply of depravity,” another referred to its (off screen) portrayal of incest and rape.

Despite this, the film received rave reviews and won the Cinema for Unicef Award at the festival. It was later longlisted for an international feature Oscar but, says Czech film director, Václav Marhoul, speaking on the phone from his office in Prague, “Venice was a nightmare for me. The first screening was for critics and about 1,500 people were there. Maybe 50 left. Then some journalists started to write about the hysteria and this mass exit. The next day, only five people left out of 1,200 but it was the same story. It was really crazy. I still can’t believe what happened there. But on the other hand,” he says with a throaty laugh, “everybody knew about The Painted Bird.”

Adapted from the 1965 novel of the same name by Polish-American writer, Jerzy Kosinski, The Painted Bird is set in war-ravaged Eastern Europe, in an indeterminate place at the end of the Second World War. It follows the journey of an abandoned, nameless Jewish boy as he wanders through the wild, primitive countryside, trying to survive in a world of extreme cruelty, madness and superstition, often suffering at the hands of people whom war has stripped of any semblance of humanity. The boy moves from one visceral, gruelling encounter to another: he is abused, tormented, attacked by crows and buried in a cesspit. He witnesses the worst depths of human behaviour.

At almost three hours long and with only nine minutes of dialogue, watching The Painted Bird is an unforgettable experience. Mesmerising and disturbing in equal measure, its brief moments of compassion give respite from the unrelenting horror and acts of violence that unfold. Visually, Marhoul has created a masterpiece of cinema. Shot in 35mm monochrome, the film is stunningly beautiful — its precise framing is unusually photographic and some of the expansive images of the countryside possess an almost ethereal quality.

There is no narration or interior monologue. Instead, the storytelling is cinematic and not verbal, says Marhoul. The black and white format captures the accuracy, depth and force of both the beauty and cruelty playing out on screen. This contributes to a feeling of authenticity, he says. “Colour would have been a catastrophe. It would have looked fake. I’m 60 years old and I’m just old fashioned. I love the secret of the classic negative, it gives a kind of magic and brings a greater emotion than digital images, where everything is so sharp. The film is in black and white, not because I would like to be ‘an artist’ or I’d like to be more interesting but because I felt that the story would lose an important part — the essence of truth — if it had been shot in colour.”

I first spoke to Marhoul six months ago, shortly before the film’s initial release date at the end of March, but, like so many other films set for theatrical release, it was delayed due to lockdown — not only in the UK but in other countries too. “I just took it as a fact,” he told me recently, via email. “What else could I do?” But he also admitted to being worried that his film might not be viewed in cinemas. “The fact remains that the film really works on the big screen and with Dolby Atmos sound.”

Marhoul initially read Kosinski’s novel 15years ago and was deeply affected by it. “It was extraordinary. I really fell in love with this book.” When he had finished his previous film, Tobruk, a Second World War drama about Czech soldiers fighting in the Libyan desert, he began to think about his next project. “And The Painted Bird just leapt at me. It hit my head and my mind like a boomerang and I said, I must try and get the rights.” It took him eight months to find out who held them, and eventually he found himself at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago, where he was “interrogated” about why he wanted to make the film.

The book was understood to be autobiographical, but later Kosinski was accused of plagiarism, of basing it on the experiences of others or creating a purely fictionalised account. Marhoul is not concerned about this. “I don’t care,” he says emphatically. “Every book is a work of fiction, from Hemingway to Hugo. It doesn’t matter. What is more important is for us to show the emotion of the story.”

Although Marhoul was aware that others had struggled with the book’s violent content, he says he did not. “Believe me, I never found it to be that.” Instead, he felt that the brutality within the story is “just a frame, not the picture.” Much more significant, he says, is the role of the Jewish boy who embodies the problems associated with difference. “This is the biggest principle of the film and not the distressing things that happen within it.” The title reinforces this — a bird with a painted white strip is hacked to death by its flock, because it is seen as an enemy by the other birds.

It has taken Marhoul more than ten years to bring The Painted Bird to the screen, largely because of financing issues, and there were times when he thought he would give up. “But deep inside I knew I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, do that.” The film was shot on location in the Czech Republic for almost two years, with an international star cast including Julian Sands, Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård and Udo Kier. But its protagonist, “The Boy”, is played by non-actor, Petr Kotlár, who gives a remarkable performance, ageing with the film, beginning when he was nine years old. “I came across him by accident in Ceský Krumlov, a small mediaeval Czech town where I write my screenplays,” Marhoul explains. “I just knew that Petr was the right child for the part. I didn’t organise any casting. I simply felt that’s him. It was an emotional decision.”

Considering that Kosinski was not specific about where the action takes place, only that a particular dialect was spoken, Marhoul decided to use “Slavic Esperanto,” an invented mix of all Slavic languages, for the dialogue. But the other reason was that Marhoul did not want to associate any nation with the atrocities shown on screen. He insists, with utter sincerity, that the violence employed in his film is “very decent. I never show any of it from the front view, the camera is always behind. I’m no Quentin Tarantino.” Kotlár did not witness any of the horrors directly, Marhoul assures me, as he filmed his reactions separately.

Marhoul says he understands why some viewers might interpret his work as a Holocaust film, but he strongly disagrees with that perception, despite his own semi-Jewish background. His grandfather was Jewish, and some of his relatives were murdered in Treblinka. “Even though I’m not Jewish, I am very close to my roots, but I have always said this is not about the Holocaust because it is much more complicated than that. It’s not just about the Jews, it’s about humankind,” he stresses. “The Jewish boy is a symbol of all of us which is why I always say, please don’t refer to it as simply a Holocaust film. It is a timeless and universal story.”

There were, however, moments during filming which were particularly difficult and painful for him because of his family’s experience during the war, in particular a scene when Jewish prisoners are held inside a train. “I couldn’t work for more than an hour because I was crying so much,” he says. “I didn’t see the extras, I saw my family. Nobody knew what was going on until finally, I gave an explanation.”

The Painted Bird is a meditation on evil, but it is also the opposite: about goodness, love and the human longing for good, says Marhoul. And as the film draws to its harrowing end, in its last moments there is the faintest glimmer of hope, a few words, that somehow provide much-needed solace for the soul.

The Painted Bird is released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland and on selected digital platforms (Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, Amazon Prime) from today. It will be available on Blu-ray in November

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive