Modern masterpiece for some, stomach-churning catalogue of depravity for others. Whatever your take, indifference to The Painted Bird won’t be an option.
Adapted from the infamous 1965 novel by Polish writer Jerzy Kosiński, this black-and-white WWII odyssey is a mammoth undertaking from Czech writer/director Václav Marhoul, who has crafted a powerfully evocative yet deeply divisive film about dehumanisation in the absence of hope. It has courted controversy since its premiere in 2019 at the Venice Film Festival due to its succession of vignettes that depict torture, rape and the darkest natures of mankind.
How was the process of adapting Jerzy Kosiński’s apparently unfilmable novel?
It was recommended to me by one of my best friends. I remember starting at midnight and finishing it at five in the morning, and I was so touched. Never in my life had I read something quite like it and thought to myself in the space of seconds that I had to adapt it. The most fascinating aspect for me was that the book gave me so many questions and no answers. It was wonderful.
It was a lengthy process, as it took you 11 years to make this film…
Almost 11 years, yes. It was difficult securing the rights. I didn’t think that an unknown director like myself would manage to get them. No one had succeeded before, including Warren Beatty, who was highly interested in adapting it. Beatty was also a close friend of Jerzy Kosiński – he had asked to get the rights, but Kosiński refused. There were a lot of meetings with the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago, who had the rights, and they asked me why I wanted to adapt this book. Very openly, I responded that this book was a call for the most important things in our lives: hope and love. I think they were shocked by this, telling me that this book is a description of violence and brutality. But not for me. Violence and war here is a frame, but not the picture. ‘The Painted Bird’ describes brutality but the message of the book calls for humanity.
It’s a very punishing story, one set at a time when humanity was in short supply. Only at the end of the film does a glimmer of hope shine through…
I didn’t like the ending of the book so rewrote it. It was difficult to figure out how to finish the movie, to express hope. For me, it’s a timeless and very universal story – it’s not a war or a Holocaust movie. It’s not about the violence and the brutality. It’s about the fact that we only realise how important it is to have peace when we are living in war. The Painted Bird shows the absence of love and hope, and how we only realise how vital these things are when we miss them. The small boy at the heart of the story symbolises humankind, our capacity to commit evil, and how anyone who is different always faces problems.
Speaking of problems, how do you get a film like this financed? A black and white film that’s nearly three hours long and will depict the harrowing endurance of hope in the face of the worst humanity has to offer is a tough pitch…
It took four years, and it was a very depressing process. Every year, I would travel to Berlin and Cannes for the film markets, to talk to potential co-producers. I had no success in the first two years. I kept on being told: “A black and white movie? Such a harrowing story? Only 9 minutes of dialogue in the whole film? Forget it.” I called exactly 33 production companies, and of the 6 that responded, they all said no. Thankfully, I’m very stubborn, and I ended up finding backing from the Czech Republic’s National Film Fund, and then found the right people in Slovakia and Ukraine. And that wasn’t the end of it, as then it took me one and a half years of shooting the film over 47 locations and 10 months of post-production! So, as you said: “a lengthy process”!
The 9 minutes of dialogue is mostly Slavic Esperanto, with The Painted Bird being the first film to feature the Interslavic language. Why this choice?
Kosiński never said where the story is happening, so I wanted a language that wasn’t specific to one nation. I didn’t want to point a finger at one particular country. The story is set during World War II, yes, but the things people do in The Painted Bird has happened everywhere and continues to happen to this day.
“If a person feels there’s explicit violence, that’s because that person has an explicit brain.”
You’ve assembled a terrific cast, with some big names like Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård… But the heart of the story is the young boy played by Petr Kotlár, who had never been in front of a camera before. How did you meet him and decide that he was right for the role?
It was an accident. I write all my screenplays in a small medieval town in the south of the Czech Republic. All of my screenplays are written in the same hotel, in the same room, at the same table, in that town. Near the hotel, there is a park, which is run by Petr’s grandparents, who I’ve known for about 20 years. One day, they invited me to a sports stadium, and that’s where I met Petr for the first time. He was seven-years-old at the time, a very energetic boy. For me, it was immediate: it’s him. So, I didn’t organise any castings. I hate castings anyway – they are horrible for the actors, for the director… It’s soulless. I just didn’t go looking for another boy. I realise I’m really crazy, but all it took was 6 minutes and I just knew it was him.
Considering the material, how did you handle Petr’s psychological wellbeing throughout the shoot?
We worked very carefully with him, and he was tested by a child psychologist before the shoot, to make sure he was safe. Petr knew what the story was about but there were no details. And there were a lot of editing tricks, so he didn’t have to be there for some of the brutal scenes. Throughout, I was telling him that this was not the real world: “We are just pretending.” But even later, when the film was completed, I was not very happy about the idea that he would watch the film at the Prague premiere. His parents decided he could and thankfully, it went well. He watched the film, but he didn’t see it – he was too busy watching himself on the screen, loudly telling people sitting next to him in the cinema: “Look at me on screen!” (Laughs)
It’s a heartbreaking performance in a film that’s proven to be very divisive. When it premiered in Venice in 2019, a lot of press attention was focused on mass walkouts. How do you react to that, especially since the so much of the horrors on screen are suggested rather than explicit?
Newspapers made a big deal out of the Venice premiere and the walkouts. The truth is there weren’t that many. So many journalists wrote about the explicit brutality but anyone who has seen the film knows that I shot the brutality with decency. The camera is behind the violence, and there is no front-view violence. Each audience member knows what is happening even if they don’t see it and everyone has his or her own way of perceiving that violence. I’m not showing anything – it’s up to the audience. If a person feels there’s explicit violence, that’s because that person has an explicit brain. If a person leaves the cinema, it’s because of themselves, not me. Also, that year in Venice, the main competition included Joker, which won the Golden Lion and is a much more violent film than mine. And no one is giving that film a stamp of explicitness.
Why do you think that is?
Because Joker is fiction. It’s a character based on comic books. The Painted Bird is truthful. It’s too real. And because it is a truthful film, audiences react more emotionally to it. The truth is always painful, and my ambition was to make a movie that is truthful. The Painted Bird is about us, about humankind, and the message is not so positive, because we are capable of the worst in life. Also, what happens in the film is still going on. Children around the world are still dying in conflict. It’s much more comfortable to hide and live in a bubble. People don’t like to face themselves and the real darkness that exists within us, and I’m showing that.