Heavy Breathing. Whimpering Animals. Attacks. This is the introduction to a brand new Holocaust film based on Jerzy Kosinski’s infamous novel of the same name. The Painted Bird is a plunge into the darkest corners of the human soul and most assuredly not for the faint-hearted. Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård, Barry Pepper, Julian Sands, and Udo Kier, this film tells the story of a Jewish child (Petr Kotlár), who, after being separated from his persecuted parents, wanders Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II, meeting senseless violence and inhumane torture along the way. In a defining moment, a peasant shows the boy the flight of a captive bird, painted and released back into its flock. The bird, now different from its fellows, is ripped apart. That critical lesson embodies the boy’s own experiences: difference is fatal.
I won’t lie. This film is extremely difficult to watch for a variety of reasons. It reminds of a time, not too different than now, that people are reviled just for the simple fact that the color other skin or nationality is different. This child is molested, beaten, malnourished, stripped naked and eventually succumbs emotionally to the violence and injustice that have followed him like a perpetual black cloud. No child should ever have to endure such injustice…EVER. Yet, he takes to heed the one and only lesson learned on this journey “…remember this.. an eye for and eye and and tooth for a tooth.’
Directed, Written and Produced by Václav Marhoul, The Painted Bird benefits from his visual artistry making the decision to film in black and white. Isn’t that what racism is? Subtle disturbing images like that of a tiny painted bird soaring back into the earth like a furry rocket to his death or watching a mob of women shove a bottle up the vagina of a whore or the sound of children laughing and playing while one kid without a leg is bullied are just a few of the many reasons the film is hard to watch, but it reflects the demonic reality of hatred. It is only countered by beautiful upside down shots of leafless trees illustrating the lack of life allowed to life by Jewish people being pursued by German Nazi’s.
Petr Kotlár should have his own special award and recognition of carrying a film of this magnitude with little to no dialogue. He is truly a marvel to watch.
The Painted Bird arouses emotions that I had suppressed regarding the world in which we now dwell and though it is very hard to watch it is necessary. You can’t change history if you don’t acknowledge the past.