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Brutal film Painted Bird does not hide the horrors – but it is a must-watch

A still from the movie trailer for The Painted Bird. - Credit: Archant

It is a film that has prompted audience walkouts, but JAMES OLIVER says The Painted Bird is a must-watch movie.

‘Filmmakers,’ says Czech director Václav Marhoul ‘have only two ways in our lives: sex or love. Sex is [a] TV series a year, two features and 15 commercials. That’s sex. And the love? If you fall in love, you will sustain everything. Absolutely everything because it’s simply your love.’

Marhoul knows all about love.

Next month sees the UK release of his new film, The Painted Bird. It is the culmination of 11, sometimes very difficult, years of hard work.

The miracle must be that it didn’t take him longer, for here is a film that goes against the grain of much modern cinema.

It’s nearly three hours long for a start and despite an international cast (Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgard, Udo Kier, Julian Sands, Barry Pepper…), it isn’t in the English language. Nor, as we shall see, are those the most contentious things about it.

But, against the odds, Marhoul prevailed and we must be glad he did, for The Painted Bird is one of those masterpieces you hear so much about: it might not be a film that’s going to trouble the multiplexes but if you have any interest in serious-minded cinema, it is a film that demands to be seen.

It is derived from a novel, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, a global bestseller during the 1960s and 1970s, that follows a small boy as he drifts through Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, and details the infernal cruelties he encounters along the way. ‘When I read it, 15 years ago,’ says the director ‘it was like a wire or a nail that someone was sticking on my brain.’

Nor could he forget it. After finishing his previous film (he’s made two others), he kept coming back to The Painted Bird. ‘I said to myself, ‘but Václav, it’s crazy, it’s a world bestseller’ [but] I knew I had to try to obtain the rights.’

Simply finding Kosinski’s literary executors took eight months but a meeting was arranged and, to cut a long story (22 months’ worth of negotiations) short, they agreed to let him make the film. Or at least, to try.

Writing alone took two years; it went through 17 drafts, refining and sculpting the story. And that was the easy bit. Right from the start, he knew what he wanted the film to be. It couldn’t be shot in English (‘that would simply damage the movie’), it would be epic in scope and it had to be black and white (‘more abstract but much more truthful’). Movie financiers, however, weren’t so sure.

‘For four years I went to Cannes and the Berlin film market to find potential co-producers and I talked to German, French, Israeli producers… I didn’t succeed.

‘They always said to me, ‘Václav, it must be colour, not too long and have dialogue in English’. I said ‘no, thank you.” Eventually, he met producers from Ukraine and Slovakia who shared his vision, but it was a hard slog: ‘Two times I’ve been on the edge of bankruptcy and I didn’t know how to pay my production office. It was very hard.’ Such is the price of love.

Marhoul, as you may have already gathered, is an uncompromising director, but uncompromising directors often find their wings clipped by their producers, traditionally a frugal bunch. But he had an ace up his sleeve there. ‘I have a wonderful producer: me!’ Acting as his own producer meant he was able to make the film without, as he saw it, cutting corners: ‘My producer said, do what you want! I believe you!’

So it was that he was allowed an unconventional production process. Filming was spread across 109 days over two years, allowing us to see the young protagonist change and grow before our very eyes, lending a verisimilitude that would have been impossible to achieve with more conventional – if economical – methods.

That young protagonist is played by Petr Kotlár, who was nine when filming began. You might think, given the centrality of The Boy to the film – it’s his journey, after all and he’s in every scene – that the casting process was long and arduous. In fact, finding him was probably the easiest price of the whole process: Marhoul discovered him while writing the script, in a hostelry just around the corner from his place of work.

‘His grandfather and grandmother are running the pub and I went there one evening and I meet him and I felt that, ‘it’s him’. I didn’t organise any [further] castings. I didn’t check any other boy. I felt it. And I said, ‘look Petr, you will play the main character in my movie’. And his reaction was, ‘OK’.’

It will, however, be a while yet before young Kotlár gets to see his performance for himself. The Painted Bird is as far from child-friendly as you can imagine, with The Boy glimpsing things no-one should see. One of the challenges Marhoul faced was filming those things without traumatising his youthful actor.

Rest assured, safeguarding was a priority. Before principal photography, the leading psychologist in the Czech Republic had a lengthy chat with Petr to make sure he was mentally secure (he was).

Moreover, filming was arranged so the lad usually didn’t even know what was going on, with his shots filmed independently of any unpleasantness and combined during the editing. Better yet, he was very easily distracted. ‘If you were to ask him, after the shot, ‘Petr, what have you done five minutes ago?’ [the answer was] ‘well – I – I don’t remember’!

‘Most important of all, when we shoot a scene, always I say, ‘Petr, it’s a fiction. We are making a movie. It’s a game.”

Still, fiction or no, The Painted Bird has already acquired a certain reputation. Although it received a 10-minute standing ovation at its premiere of the Venice Film Festival last September (‘two minutes more than Joker!’), coverage of the film was dominated by reports of shocked audiences and even mass walkouts by people who could stomach no more.

Marhoul rolls his eyes at this. ‘It simply didn’t happen. [At] the screening for journalists, 1,500 people were there and maybe 70 people left.’ Hardly an exodus.

Nor is that the worst of the fake news: when the film played at the Toronto Film Festival, a Canadian newspaper declared that Marhoul personally locked the doors to the cinema to prevent timid patrons from escaping. That would have been tricky since he was still in Europe at the time.

There’s no denying The Painted Bird is an unflinching film but, given the subject matter, that’s basically unavoidable: it is set, after all, at a time when constraints upon the worst instincts of our species were relaxed.

Marhoul, though, says he does not consider it to be a holocaust movie. ‘It’s a universal story and the war is just a frame. But the frame is not important; what’s important is the picture which is inside.’

Even though it’s set somewhere in Eastern Europe, sometime during the war, we’re not given too many specifics. It’s not even immediately clear when the story is taking place – we’re given a few signifiers that we’re in the 20th century but some early scenes are straight out of the pagan past. We don’t see our first Nazi until over an hour in, by which time we’ve already been thoroughly blooded: their actions are of a piece with earlier outrages and maybe even with nature herself – no spoilers, but the episode that gives the film its title offers a bleak vision of the natural world.

Such barbarism was hardly restricted to the Second World War. It’s a story that could be relocated to Syria, for instance, without too much trouble. Marhoul certainly thinks so. ‘It’s still going on. This very second children are dying because of war. It’s a timeless story.’

None of which makes it sound much like a breezy night at the pictures. But there is so much more here than just an atrocity exhibition.

The film closes on a note of hope and recovery, very different to that of the book but reflecting the themes that drew Marhoul to the story in the first place. ‘For so many people the book is only a description of the brutality and the violence [but] from my point of view this book is about the three most important things in our life. It’s about hope, good and love.

‘If I say this, so many people are really shocked but let me explain: we realise when hope, good and love are so important when we are missing them. That’s how I read the book from the very first page and that’s what I tried to instil in the film, even its very heart.’

Marhoul is genial company, justifiably proud of The Painted Bird and perhaps relieved that his epic journey to bring it to the screen is at its end. Now he can get started on his next film; it’s very much to be hoped this one won’t take him so long.

The Painted Bird is released on September 11

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