At some point during dinner, the miller with his ice-cold, motionless eyes literally lets the cat out of the bag. In silence he goes to the bag with its twitching contents, opens it, and a tomcat jumps out. The miller sits back at the table, with his wife and servant, whom he suspects of infidelity. The tomcat and house cat begin to cuddle – a sweet scene actually, but the dinner party follows it with obvious discomfort. Then the miller jumps up, overturns the table, presses the servant against the wall and removes his eyeballs with a blunt spoon. Before he snaps a belt and beats up his wife.
In addition to the miller’s eyes (they are those of Udo Kier) and the servant’s visual organs (which will roll around on the floor at some point, for the pleasure of the cats), there is a third pair of eyes in this scene, which are actually the focus here. They are the eyes of a child who crouches in the corner and has to watch, huddled and just as disturbed as the viewers of Václav Marhoul’s film, “The Painted Bird”. When the film adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s novel of the same name premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, the underage leading actor, Petr Koltár, was not allowed to see the adult work out of consideration for his mental health. When he’s old enough to do that, he’ll still be relatively shocked.
The boy he embodies, whose path of suffering leads him to the cruel miller, among other things, has no parents and no name. We only find out later in the film that he is Jewish; The fact that the plot takes place in World War II is signaled at the outset by the German Air Force plane flashing briefly in the sky. But the history of the 20th century is not so much the focus of the film, the first part of which could also take place in a historically indefinite past.
The raw, archaic and taciturn figures belong more to myth than to history. Even the very first scene has the symbolic quality of a primal scene, the groundless brutality of which becomes the foundation for the entire film: a gang of children chases the boy through the forest, throws him to the ground, snatches his squirrel, doused it with gasoline and burned it his eyes. Shortly afterwards, the old farmer’s wife, with whom he lives, also dies. Now he’s all alone.
The rural population, in whose clutches he then falls, sees in him a “demon” who “bewitches the cows and poisons the water”. He is whipped and handed over to a healer who employs him as a helper in her rituals, but then wants to get rid of it and bury him up to the head in the earth. Over time, the historical context emerges more and more: the boy witnesses the crimes of the SS, the death trains, the massacres of the civilian population and the brutal struggle of the Red Army soldiers.
The number of stars in small supporting roles is considerable
The film follows an unchangeable rule: protectors regularly turn out to be enemies, they die, like the old priest played by Harvey Keitel, or quickly disappear again, like the Wehrmacht soldier played by Stellan Skarsgård, who is supposed to shoot the boy, but then he does runs. The number of stars in supporting roles is considerable and has certainly given the demanding film an advantage in terms of funding. Yet Kier, Keitel, Skarsgård and others do little to change the fact that the only star is ubiquitous, maximum cruelty.
Now one can ask oneself what Marhoul is getting at with his passion story. Does he want to explore the limits of the bearable and the showable, as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Haneke, Gaspar Noë or Lars von Trier did before him? Does he want to reach this neuralgic point at which a spectator is forced to look but no longer wants to look; where you watch with fascination, but are actually no longer allowed to watch? Or is Marhoul about staging a martyr, a modern Jesus, with whom the priest once compares him?
With great attention to looking, Marhoul’s impressive black and white pictures in 35-millimeter widescreen format create a darkness that simply devours everything, above all any humanity and empathy. The little bit of light that is there is only good for illuminating the depths a little better. The pictures are beautiful, but their beauty is superfluous; in the end they only shimmer in the reflection of the hardness shown and an infinite nihilism.
Even the boy seems less like an observing subject. Even when he is watching, he is being looked at by the camera, he remains a detail of the gloomy tableaus, a remnant of empathy in a world without empathy. Often the individual situations follow one another suddenly: In a moment the boy is alone, all around him but the emptiness of the Eastern European landscape. In the next instant the picture is full of people who attack him.
This immobility is the film’s main problem. It reduces the boy to a pure object that the director passes through from station to station. He is not tested, but his sheer existence tests the degree of maturity of a human race that crashes through this test. Ultimately, it could be a probe that a divine authority was put into a beta version of creation to find out whether it should really be created or better not. The answer is: better not. Then just a world full of cuddling kittens.
The Painted Bird / Nabarvené ptáče, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Slovakia, 2019 – Director: Václav Marhoul. Book: Marhoul, based on the novel of the same name by Jerzy Kosiński. Camera: Vladimír Smutný. With Petr Kotlár, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Barry Pepper. Drop-Out Cinema, 169 min.