Sometimes horror is not just things that go bump in the night. Horror can emerge from the depravity of humanity. Vaclav Marhoul’s new film (an adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird) is a raw and visceral source of horror – a film that shows humanity at its absolute worst in an unnamed area of Eastern Europe during World War II.
Kosinski’s original novel is infamous now for the context that surrounds it. Kosinski claimed to witness scenes of murder, rape and incest while surviving in Europe on his own, though it came to light that he had falsified all this information. Instead, he was sheltered and protected by a Polish Catholic family for the entirety of the war. Nevertheless, the story of a lone boy being an onlooker to these acts still hits hard and feels ever more relevant to the accounts of immigrant children that flood the news.
Shot in luscious black and white by Vladimir Smutny, the film deals with countless themes including life, death, lust and taboo. A painted bird is relevant to the film’s title and, also, second chapter; each chapter of the film is subtitled with the name of a character the young boy encounters. Here, the boy witnesses increasingly violent acts. The brutish, nightmarish quality of it all is gripping, the sights of burning houses littered among barren landscapes choked by smoke. THE PAINTED BIRD is not an easy film, with each character seeming to hold some sort of brutish reservation to the young boy, many people believing him to be a devil due to the fact that he is Jewish, and others taking advantage of him – both emotionally and sexually. The lack of music places the viewer in the hellscape the boy is thrust into after his Aunt dies. All seems lost.
Various big-name actors appear for brief cameos, including Stellen Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel and Barry Pepper. In these roles, humanity shines through the bleak atrocities of the war, with their varied roles highlighting the human side of people on either side of the violent battle. It is in these segments that Marhoul really shows his directorial ability, creating small episodes of compassion towards this young orphaned boy. The dissonance of each character is apparent, none wanting to look after the boy, yet seeing no other option. In the end, humanity wins, and so does our protagonist.