The Painted Bird and the cinema of Eastern Europe’s WWII bloodlands

Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird, a searing portrait of a boy trapped in the violence of Eastern Europe during WWII, joins a brave lineage of films exploring the experience of conflict in the region, from Ivan’s Childhood to Come and See.

The Painted Bird (2019)

▶︎ The Painted Bird is in UK cinemas from 11 September.

Czech director Václav Marhoul was far from the obvious candidate to attempt the first translation into film of The Painted Bird, Jerzy Kosinski’s notorious 1965 novel set in an unspecified war-ravaged Eastern European country during World War II. Marhoul had just two feature films behind him – the Raymond Chandler-inspired slapstick farce Smart Philip (2003) and the war film Tobruk (2008), about Czechoslovak soldiers on the front line of the Allies’ North African campaign. Which explains some of the shock that greeted its September 2019 world premiere at the Venice Film Festival: this was undoubtedly a major film by a serious artist, with the work of Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr frequently cited as legitimate comparators.

But the bulk of the reaction, including numerous walkouts, was linked to the film’s content. The narrative follows a young boy as he travels through a hellscape bearing witness to, and often being the target of, set pieces as violent as anything in recent cinema. (The 102-day shoot spanned 18 months, a pre-planned special effect that enabled lead actor Petr Kotlar to visibly age over the course of the film.) Few current films have been more deserving of an 18 certificate, and anyone even slightly squeamish should approach with extreme caution.

The Painted Bird (2019)

Although it was perhaps inevitable that the film would be repeatedly described as “Václav Marhoul’s Holocaust epic”, the director himself is at pains to play this down. And indeed the events labelled ‘the Holocaust’ – the pre-planned, mechanised slaughter of millions of people – comprise a comparatively small proportion of his film’s 169 minutes. People clearly en route to a Nazi extermination camp attempt an escape, and a numerical camp tattoo is revealed in the last scene, but otherwise the film’s atrocity exhibition is conducted at a strictly local level.

And in this the film encapsulates the experience of living in what historian Timothy Snyder calls “the bloodlands”, stretching from central Poland to eastern Russia and incorporating Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States, which from 1933 to 1945 experienced, to quote Snyder, “mass violence of a sort never before seen in history”. The 14 million victims were mostly native to that region: Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians and Balts, very few of them wearing military uniform, and while the perpetrators were often loyal to either Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union, sometimes they were driven by more ancient enmities.

It was widely assumed that Kosinski’s novel was set in the author’s native Poland (exacerbated by the erroneous initial impression that it was autobiographical), but the text never specifies the location and the ethnicity of its pre-teenage protagonist is similarly vague: his non-Aryan physical features let him pass for either Jew or Roma, and he’s constantly ‘Othered’ by people looking for an easy excuse for persecution.

The Painted Bird (2019)

Kosinski’s novel was written in English, but despite casting Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper, Julian Sands, Stellan Skarsgård and Udo Kier, Marhoul presents the film’s sparse spoken content in Interslavic, a pre-existing artificial language based on Slavic grammar and vocabulary, but impossible to localise beyond a generic ‘Eastern Europe’. For similar reasons, Marhoul filmed in several countries: Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and his native Czech Republic.

In attempting to depict the experience of living in the bloodlands, The Painted Bird joins a number of films that present a more localised and historically specific study of individual atrocities, in the process presenting filmmakers with numerous dilemmas about how best to balance the need to at least give an impression of the full horror without justifying accusations of sensationalist wallowing.

Vaclav Marhoul shooting The Painted BirdJan Dobrovsky

As Marhoul puts it: “How will we realise what is good and what is not? If we do not know the evil, we can’t find the good. It’s a complicated question for me. I suppose that my film doesn’t provide any responses to the audience. Each in his own way has to understand the story. This is quite important because I am still trying to find out myself. So many questions, but no clear answers.” On the whole, perhaps because of the comparative lack of prurient interest that led to things like the 1970s Nazisploitation phenomenon (Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS, 1974; SS Experiment Camp, 1976), the films that place the Eastern European experience front and centre usually pass the tact test.

Behind the scenes of The Painted Bird (2019)Jan Dobrovsky

Marhoul intended from the outset to shoot in black and white, taking his cue from Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), in turn inspired by Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak (1990), which saw the Polish master return to black and white for the first time in decades.

In The Painted Bird, cinematographer Vladimír Smutny’s gravely beautiful black-and-white images recall two aspects of the work of Don McCullin – the unflinchingly blunt images of conflict, and the vast, empty landscapes that the great war photographer turned to in later years. Interviews with McCullin often touch on similar topics to those that Marhoul raises about the ethics of depicting human beings in a state of extreme violation.

The Painted Bird (2019)

Marhoul applies similar tact to individual set pieces. While much of the novel’s animal abuse is carried over to the film, it’s invariably framed and cut in such a way that the cine-literate viewer can work out how the effect was achieved even on first viewing (and thankfully the book’s most brutally graphic section, involving a rabbit that regains consciousness while being skinned, was dropped at the script stage). The same goes for child sexual abuse (significantly toned down from the book), and the scene in which a man is eaten alive by starving rats – described with lip-smacking relish by Kosinski in a decidedly James Herbert-like passage – happens entirely off screen once the narrative ingredients have been established.

The most shocking moments all have a clear psychological point, often to do with loss of innocence: the aftermath of a brutal eye-gouging is followed by the child witness’s naive attempt to “make things better”, while the murder of a woman, Ludmila, deemed to have behaved immorally, is rendered doubly disturbing by an act of shockingly sexualised violence that is itself carried out by a much older woman.

Marhoul has a double defence: every horrific set piece in his film is drawn directly from the literary classic that inspired it, and there is no doubt that equivalent atrocities occurred on a regular basis in the bloodlands throughout the 1940s (and indeed more recently elsewhere: Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, Syria, etc).

Mr. Jones (2019)

He also has the defence that it’s a work of fiction: shortly before Agnieszka Holland’s recent Mr. Jones opened commercially in the UK, the Sunday Times ran a shock-horror story about how its journalist protagonist Gareth Jones is seen in the film indulging – albeit unwittingly – in cannibalism, something that almost certainly never happened in real life. But cannibalism undoubtedly was a side-effect of the mass starvation engendered in Ukraine in 1932-3 by Soviet grain-requisition policies, and while Holland and screenwriter Andrea Chalupa could conceivably have not involved Jones directly, the moment when he realises what he’s eating conveys a first-person shock at the full horror of the Holodomor more vividly than if he’d just been a distant witness.

The Silent Village (1943)

Humphrey Jennings attempted something similar when he transplanted the Nazi obliteration of the Czech village of Lidice to a demographically similar Welsh mining community in The Silent Village (1943), made only a few years after the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland had been notoriously dismissed by Neville Chamberlain as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”.

Katyn (2007)

Often it was in the relevant authorities’ interest to ensure that we knew nothing. Although it was widely known in Poland that the spring 1940 massacre of more than 20,000 Polish army officers and other members of the intelligentsia in Ukraine’s Katyn Forest had been carried out by Soviet forces, the official story that it was a Nazi massacre carried out three years later remained in place until a belated Soviet admission of culpability in 1990.

One of the Katyn victims was cavalry officer Jakub Wajda, and his son Andrzej planned to make Katyn for decades before it finally emerged in 2007. Wajda’s sombre, intensely moving film concludes with a reconstruction of the massacre itself, and what truly horrifies is how primitive it is, as victims are lined up and shot in the back of the head: the only concession to 20th-century technology is the bulldozer filling in the mass graves.

Come and See (1985)

Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), a major influence on The Painted Bird (Marhoul cast Klimov’s lead actor Alexei Kravchenko in conscious tribute), similarly shows how mass destruction can be perpetrated with the most basic methods, provided there are enough fanatics willing to use them. Klimov’s equivalent of Katyn’s climax involves villagers deliberately burned alive in a barn, a method of slaughter frequently practised by Oskar Dirlewanger, the head of an SS unit that was formally charged with hunting down active partisans but in practice found it easier simply to murder whoever was perceived to be in their way.

The events in Come and See and The Painted Bird are seen through the horrified eyes of a child, a not uncommon narrative strategy – Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Lajos Koltai’s Fateless (2005) are other distinguished regional examples).

The Shop on the High Street (Obchod na Korze, 1965)

Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos’s The Shop on the High Street (1965) does something similar, but their victim is a befuddled old woman (Oscar-nominated Ida Kaminska) whose ‘crime’ is to be Jewish when the Slovak authorities were enthusiastically collaborating with the Nazis. Tellingly, there’s only one briefly glimpsed swastika: the film’s dominant oppression symbol is the double-cross of the Hlinka Guard, the Slovak People’s Party militia charged with enforcing ‘Aryanisation’ policies that at the time (1942) went further than equivalents in Germany itself.

Hatred (Volhynia, 2016)

There’s a simplistic tendency to think of the bloodlands’ victims as a monolithic group, but films like Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness (2011) and Wojciech Smarzowski’s Volhynia (aka Hatred, 2016) stress that Jews, Poles and Ukrainians had as many differences as similarities – indeed, Holland insisted that an initially English-language project be presented in Polish, Ukrainian, German and Yiddish in order to reflect this.

Often as viscerally extreme as The Painted Bird, Volhynia is one of the cinema’s most vivid recent depictions of how communities that have intermingled for centuries can swiftly become mortal enemies when given appropriate ideological impetus. Similarly, Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s Aftermath (2012) deals with the topic of active participation in anti-Semitic atrocities by Poles as well as Germans, a subject that the present Polish government has recently made virtually taboo.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ryszard Bugajski, director of the memorably confrontational Interrogation (1982), went to his grave unable to raise funds to dramatise the Kielce pogrom of 1946, the deadliest attack on Jews since WWII, and whose perpetrators were Poles. Marcel Lozinski’s queasily gripping Kielce documentary Witnesses (1987) accrues much of its Shoah-like power by dint of interviewing actual participants.

Lidice: Fall of the Innocent (2011)

At the end of The Painted Bird, Marhoul urges the viewer to sit through the end credits, to process what they’ve just seen while listening to the film’s only non-diegetic music: Israeli composer Naomi Shemer’s Horchat Hai Caliptus.

Petr Nikolaev’s Lidice (2011) offers a similarly moving accompaniment to the end credits in the form of a parallel roll-call of real-life women bearing the first name Lidice, a tradition that began in Catholic countries (especially in Latin America) after 1943 as a means of keeping the village’s memory alive, and which persists to this day.

Many of the films mentioned above end in utter despair, with the protagonists either dead (sometimes by suicide) or faced with lifelong post-traumatic stress disorder, so any attempt, no matter how fleeting, to create an upbeat ending that doesn’t seem gratuitously forced or sentimental offers at least a crumb of comfort.