The Painted Bird Review: An overtly gruesome and grimy Holocaust film that finds merit in its story and style
Writer/director Vaclav Marhoul’s of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, The Painted Bird, is a tortuous and grotesque film that preys on depravity as it tells one of the gruesome Holocaust stories ever depicted.
The film follows a young Jewish boy (Petr Kotlar) as he is sent to his aunt’s (Nina Sunevic) house for safety during WWII. However, after she dies suddenly, the young boy is left on his own to travel throughout Eastern Europe in order to find his father (Petr Vanek). Along the way he comes in contact with some of the horrors and horrifying people that are a result of this new lifestyle and attitude brought on by the Nazi regime. Now, this young boy must attempt to survive the horrors and human tragedies he constantly finds himself encountering as he seeks refuge.
It’s hard to say if I’ve seen a film as tragic and overly bleak as The Painted Bird lately – like to the point where its almost unwatchable. The film spares no expense heading to every corner of horror that the young boy faces throughout his entire trek across Eastern Europe. Viewers are literally subjected to the bottom of the barrel of human behavior as the young boy experiences the gut-wrenching horrors of bestiality, pedophilia, very graphic rape, mass murder, and so many other terrible things that’ll rattle your cage. Hell, the opening moments of a bunch of monstrous kids killing the young boys ferret by lighting it on fire is just an appetizer for all the atrocities this film serves up. It’s the kind of film that someone like Lars Von Trier would adore because of how graphic it can be, but thankfully Marhoul makes things more effective by not always show the bloody details of everything in the moment. I’d even say that the film rides the line of almost being torture porn because of how it nearly takes things too far.
Personally, the film really beats in how cruel things are for the young boy when it was already pretty clear after the first hour. The brutality reaches a point where the artsy aspects and the meaning of it starts to fade away. It’s basically like the film proves its point and then obnoxiously berates you with how its right even after you’ve already agreed with it. The experience of watching every atrocity that the young boy encounters is incredibly dreadful and with the film being just under three hours, it’s a mortifying nightmare that just seems endless. The sheer graphic nature of The Painted Bird makes it pretty impossible to recommend to the common viewer and I don’t think they would really bite much anyway. However, none of this is to say that the film is bad because it’s far from it and its violence does serve a purpose in showing a different side to WWII and the Holocaust in Europe.
Generally, most Holocaust stories are generally surrounding how Nazi’s horrifically treat Jews or take place within the walls of concentration camps, but that’s not what The Painted Bird is about. The film actually paints violence as sort of a normalcy that everyone has come to accept in this time, and it creates a horrifying picture of the time. There’re very few people and places the young boy encounters that he actually finds kindness and compassion, mostly because he’s Jewish, and it really gives the Nazi regime and overall anti-Semitic mentality a daunting presence – even when they aren’t directly there. It also makes the moments where the boy finds kindness more meaningful. The choice of having the boy and really all of the characters have very little dialogue throughout the whole film is one that heavily works and speaks to the complacency people have succumb to. Also, the way this story is told is actually very appealing as it’s basically like a collection of short stories.
Each section/chapter is generally named by who the young boy comes across and gives each person a sense of importance before we even meet them or learn their name. There’re also some familiar faces along the way, including the likes of Stellan Skarsgard, Harvey Keitel, and Barry Pepper, that viewers will appreciate seeing and it’s even fun to see Pepper as another WWII sniper – although its for the Russian side rather than the Americans. Even with a lack of dialogue, the performances still shine through and create this horrifying normalcy the film boasts. The best performance though, is easily from Kotlar as he perfectly displays the emotions and fears of the young boy through a very physically demanding performance. Kotlar really gives off the impression of someone trying to survive and whose innocence is being slowly ripped away as he comes across and is forced into some mortifying tragedy. By the end, there’re some emotional scars that remain present and will likely remain that way for the rest of the young boy’s life and Kotlar makes that haunt you through every step of his journey.
The film is also very visually stunning with the black and white aesthetic giving the film an authentic feel of a film from that time. It adds to the bleakness of the film’s story and sometimes even makes the gruesome visuals even more horrifying because our imagination visualizes in color. Even the sound design and stylistic choices, like the scene of Mitka (Pepper) sniping or the scenes of Jews trying to escape a Nazi train car, feel like they belong in a film from that time and it’s a testament to Marhoul’s desires to create an authentic period piece. Hell, even the Wilhelm scream that can be heard feels oddly at home with this film and Marhoul creates a strong ode to old film.
Although it’s impossible to genuinely recommend and even watch at times, it’s just as impossible not to recognize the merit The Painted Bird has in depicting the violence and depravity that became heightened during the Holocaust. It’s not for faint of heart and, truthfully, not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s certainly an effort from Marhoul and Kotlar’s performance that shouldn’t go unnoticed and a story that comes together of one boy’s journey through a grisly, gruesome, and hellish nightmare.