The Painted Bird is a masterful epic about a young unnamed Jewish Boy (Petr Kotlár) navigating a bleak Eastern European landscape during World War II, and when it had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September, it was equally praised and decried as brutal and harrowing thanks to its horrifying scenes of murder, pedophilia and bestiality. Ask Czech writer/director Václav Marhoul about that reaction, however, and he confesses that he views his third feature—a nearly three-hour, black-and-white adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel of the same name, boasting supporting turns from Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Julian Sands, and Barry Pepper—in a far different light.
“It’s about hope,” the 60-year-old Marhoul states via Skype a week before the film’s July 17 VOD debut. That optimistic perspective, he believes, is why following years of struggle, he was able to secure the rights to Kosiński’s acclaimed book. Pitching his take as about “the three most important things in life: love, good and hope,” Marhoul suspects that, “maybe they were shocked because they expected another reason why I’d want to make this movie. I was trying to explain that it was based on the opposite. I feel hope and good and love is so important in life, mostly when we are missing those three important things. Maybe that was the reason why they said okay, Václav, we’ll give it to you.”
If Marhoul’s upbeat outlook on his disturbing tale is a bit surprising, so too is the fact that, despite its heavily allegorical nature—rife with images of fire and smoke that recall Nazi concentration camps—the writer/director also doesn’t see The Painted Bird as, fundamentally, a Holocaust or World War II film. “This is not a Holocaust movie. If you tell people this movie is during the Second World War, and the main character is a Jewish boy, oh my God, it must be a Holocaust movie! And I said, it’s not; it doesn’t matter,” he elucidates. “If you are different, always you have problems, everywhere around the world. So it’s not about Eastern Europe, it’s not about the Holocaust, it’s not about the United States and the problems you have at the moment with Black Lives Matter. It’s about principles which are so deeply inside of us.”
Central to The Painted Bird’s bedrock focus on outsiderdom and intolerance is the scene that gives it its title. Left in the care of an aunt by his parents, and soon forced to roam a harsh rural milieu where he falls into the care of alternately compassionate and callous strangers, the Boy eventually finds his way into the home of elderly Lekh (Lech Dyblik), who for kicks catches a bird, paints it a bright color, and then releases it back into the flock. Marked as different even though it’s inherently the same as its comrades, the innocent winged creature is promptly slain—a symbolic lesson the Boy himself learns first-hand, time and again, over the course of his nightmarish odyssey.
At heart, The Painted Bird is a universal saga of suffering and survival—as well as a timely one about the resilience needed to overcome traumatic persecution. “What’s going on in this story is unfortunately still going on all the time, right now, while we are talking, this very second,” Marhoul says. “In Afghanistan, in Mali, and in so many countries in Africa. As all screenwriters do, I implemented my own experiences in the screenplay, of course. Because for many years, I worked for Czech UNICEF, and we have programs in Africa, providing nutrition and water supplies for the refugees in Rwanda. It’s so important to see how those people are living, and what they’re facing. How really poor they are, and how the children are dying because they simply don’t have nutrition. It’s crazy. So maybe I was more sensitive to this story.”
Assuming the point of view of its young protagonist as he’s thrust along his journey by the cruel hand of fate, The Painted Bird is as austerely beautiful as films come, awash in desolate panoramas of minute figures set against imposing grey skies, and unforgettable close-ups of visages oozing depravity and radiating kindness. There’s a stark immediacy to its many stunning images, and for Marhoul, the reason to shoot in black and white was less about stylistic showmanship than about an underlying sense of authenticity.
“My ambition was to make a truthful movie. This is one of my highest ambitions—that people are really going to be touched. That’s why I chose black and white. Not because I would like to be more artistic—no. So many people think that if you’re producing or making a black-and-white movie like Roma, or Ida, that it’s more artistic. But not for me. I only chose black and white because my ambition was to make a truthful movie. I was thinking of the same problem that maybe Steven Spielberg had when he made Schindler’s List. Just try to imagine if Schindler’s List was in color. I suppose it will be not a disaster, but it will not be so strong. It was the same for me.”
Seeking truth additionally meant shooting The Painted Bird in the Interslavic language rather than in English (no matter what his producers wanted) and, except for its final scene, refusing to use any musical score. That latter decision was born from a desire to let the audience confront their own complicated feelings about the action at hand, free from authorial prodding. “The music is so dangerous,” Marhoul admits. “Directors use music because they’d like to point to something, and they’re pushing the audience to a very specific emotion. They are saying, you must feel this! You have sentimental music, and the director is saying, you must be sentimental at this moment! Or the music is dramatic, because the scene is dramatic! It was everything against the truthful. We can never make something truly true, because we are filmmakers and we are making fiction movies. But we can have a mission to be truthful.”
Despite The Painted Bird’s reputation as a cavalcade of horrors, Marhoul is quick to note that there’s relatively little actual gruesomeness depicted on-screen. Whether it’s a woman being appallingly violated with a glass bottle, a young girl pleasuring herself with a farm animal, or a man tumbling into a pit of voracious rats, the film is a case study in suggestion (aided by sterling sound design) proving far more powerful than explicit. Thus, the writer/director was taken aback when Venice Film Festival attendees labelled it as unspeakably graphic, while letting Golden Lion-winning Joker off the hook for its carnage—at least, that is, until he considered the reason his work was treated differently than Todd Phillips’ inflammatory hit.
“Joker is much more violent than The Painted Bird,” he contends. “But The Painted Bird was so controversial in Venice, and all the people went, ‘It’s cruel, it’s brutal, it’s full of violence,’ and they never said it about Joker. I was thinking, why? Finally, I suppose I found a correct response: it’s because Joker is a comic book, and a fairy tale. The Painted Bird is not a comic book, and sensitive people could feel that it is truthful. That’s why it’s so painful, and why people felt so uncomfortable—because this film is bringing to them so many painful questions. Maybe that’s the point.”
In fact, Marhoul claims that he held back when it came to The Painted Bird’s nastiness. “It should happen in much, much, much worse [fashion], because I also read history books and so many articles about the Eastern part of Europe, and what happened during WWII, and believe me, The Painted Bird is like lemonade. It’s absolutely unbelievable what happened there.” Credit for that restraint, he says, has to do with his own disposition toward such ghastliness. “I’m not Quentin Tarantino,” he laughs.
Even without the name-brand recognition of the Pulp Fiction auteur, Marhoul enlisted an impressive international roster for The Painted Bird. Emboldened by his source material’s formidable literary status, the writer/director decided to pursue his dream candidates for the film’s many smaller parts, and that domino-like process began with Stellan Skarsgård. Though securing the star for a small, dialogue-free role as a German soldier with an empathetic streak seems, on the face of it, like a long shot, Marhoul had an ace up his sleeve: namely, that in 1994, shortly before Skarsgård broke big with Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, he had hosted the then-unknown Swedish actor during a trip to Prague, and they had bonded over sightseeing, museum trips, and a particularly boozy and combative evening together.
“We spent two days in Prague with Stellan, and I showed him the places the tourists will never see. Some alternative clubs, and the exhibitions. And of course we drank alcohol very much. Finally, on Saturday evening, we fought against some bad guys. It was five against us, and we won! Stellan surely never forgot that,” Marhoul fondly recalls. Twenty-five years later, a simple text—and ensuing phone call—all but secured their partnership on The Painted Bird, which in turn helped the filmmaker convince the rest of his illustrious thespians to sign on to parts that ranged from the benevolent (Keitel’s priest) to the abusive (Kier’s jealous father) to the outright monstrous (Sands’ unrepentant pedophile).
Having triumphed with the magnificent The Painted Bird, Marhoul now has his sights set on his English-language debut: McCarthy, about the infamous Wisconsin senator who spearheaded the persecution of alleged Cold War communists. Like The Painted Bird, Marhoul is convinced his next endeavor “must be timeless, again—about our lives, and our world, at the moment when so many fascists and populists are running our destinies around the world. I’m talking about Maduro in Venezuela, Putin in Russia, and Donald Trump in the United States. There’s such a close connection between Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump. They are both manipulative people, only working on fear, and always lying. So the Joe McCarthy movie should be a great drama about those people.”
Another historical portrait of endemic injustice and the loss of power and autonomy it breeds, McCarthy “is about us, now, and how far you, me and everybody can go if we’re really feeling that somebody or something is going to be a danger to all of us. How we’re losing democracy, how we’re losing freedom.”
Speaking of freedom, after years spent trying to attain the rights to Kosiński’s celebrated book and to secure funding for his production, and then shooting for 104 days over the course of 1.5 years—chronologically, so lead actor Kotlár could mature in tune with his character—Marhoul is content in the knowledge that, no matter the reaction it elicits, The Painted Bird is exactly the film he set out to make. Referencing the fact that he changed the novel’s finale because he wanted to end the Boy’s ordeal on a hopeful note, he explains, “I didn’t want to make a morality [play]. I didn’t say, like Jerry Kosiński did, look, you must feel this, you must understand this.” Such alterations, ultimately, are part and parcel of his artistic drive to satisfy himself, rather than to conform to others’ expectations.
“I am openly and frankly saying that I do my films for myself,” he chuckles. “I simply have to say something. Of course, I am very glad if somebody enjoys my movie and shares my ideas, and understands the story on the same level as me. But so many important lessons came to me from this book about human nature, and what the difference is between evil and good…This story brought me so many questions, and I had to find my own way.”