Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2019: "The Painted Bird"

Michael Hayward

Jerzy Kosiński’s 1965 novel The Painted Bird was hugely successful with critics and with readers. Set in the later stages of the Second World War, it tells the story of a young Jewish boy who has been sent away for safekeeping, living with an aunt in a small, isolated village in eastern Europe. When his aunt dies, and her home is destroyed in an accidental fire, he finds himself suddenly alone. He sets out on his own, through a hostile landscape in the midst of a brutal war. The novel is notoriously dark, with the boy experiencing and witnessing violence and cruelty in many forms, including, but not limited to, murder, rape, bestiality, and incest.

Václav Marhoul’s film version of The Painted Bird is also extremely dark and violent, and will quickly remove any lingering doubts that you might have about the inherently brutish nature of humankind. William T. Sherman famously said that “War is hell,” and at times this film feels as if you’ve been taken on a guided trip through hell itself.

Filmed in black and white, The Painted Bird is bleak almost beyond endurance, but even as you despair about the possibility of people ever living in peace with those from other communities, you can’t help feeling that this is an important film, and one which deserves our attention. Marhoul filmed The Painted Bird in specific eastern European countries, Slovakia and the Ukraine among them, but deliberately used the Interslav language for most dialogue, so that the events would not be tied to closely to any one country, since so much of eastern Europe was devastated by that war.

The Painted Bird should (and will) win acclaim from film reviewers, and I have no doubt that it will also win awards. But I can’t help wondering whether this remarkable and difficult film will ever find the audience that it deserves: I can't imagine that many filmgoers will willingly choose a bleak, two and three-quarter hour, black and white film filled with unrelenting violence, a film which only confirms man’s inhumanity to his fellow man, when their other viewing choices include films like Downton Abbey, and the TIFF People’s Choice award-winner, Jojo Rabbit, which presents an alternate take on the events of World War II: a sanitized and sunny version in which the Nazis are depicted as unthreatening and incompetent villains (think: Hogan’s Heros), and the brutalities of war are reduced to slapstick.

As a final footnote, it is surprising (though I suppose it shouldn’t be) just how enduring misinformation can be. As I was leaving the screening of The Painted Bird, I overheard one audience member in the back row telling another “And you know that all of this is autobiographical, don’t you? Yeah: everything in it actually happened to the book’s author, Jerzy Kosiński.” If I hadn’t been in such a hurry to get outside I would have tried to point them to the Wikipedia particle on Kosiński’s novel, which makes for fascinating reading. The article reveals what was at one time fairly common knowledge: that Kosiński quickly abandoned his initial claims that his novel was autobiographical; it also documents the many accusations of plagiarism against him.

There are no further screenings of The Painted Bird during VIFF, but the film will undoubtedly come back in general release. You can read more about the film on the VIFF website; you can see a trailer here.



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