There’s a certain brand of depressing Eastern European historical black-and-white film that has emerged over the past decade or so. Films like Hard to Be a God, The Turin Horse, November, Cold War, and The White Ribbon. I personally really dig that stuff and their insights into history and society have allowed me to do some great analysis. But they are not easy films to watch. Then again, even award-winning colour films from Eastern Europe seem to have melancholy at their centre nowadays, see Son of Saul, The Tribe, Honeyland, On Body and Soul, or Loveless. So The Painted Bird emerges from a legacy and film movement that is well-established, even though it adapts a 1960s novel. Yet it simply does not compare to the quality of all those films I previously listed. If you want to be even harsher, it’s almost an embarassment compared to other child-centred films set on the Eastern Front, such as Come and See and Ivan’s Childhood.
Moving away from comparisons, The Painted Bird is unsuccessful because it really strains to find a point to its brutality. The more I read and learn about the Eastern Front, the more it becomes clearly the darkest moment of mankind. However The Painted Bird is just a series of really nasty moments, that become ridiculous. So ridiculous that it becomes almost comical, and therefore meaningless. This is a film with ample opportunity to say something, and yet it passes no comment because everything is just so literal. It’s a film of piss, blood, and dirt, not anything inside the soul.
The Painted Bird is a journey through hell. Animals are burnt alive. Crows peck a boy’s head until he bleeds. Eyes are gouged, and cats nibble on the eyeballs. A blind man tries to cry. A woman is raped and mutilated. A man hangs himself. A horse has a bone sticking out of its leg. A Jewish boy is shot in the back, dying slowly. A massacre of Jews follows their escape from a train. A boy cuts his own arm. Paedophilia enters the plot twice. A man is eaten alive by rats. Someone has sex with a goat. Civilians are stabbed, shot, and burnt by soldiers. The Painted Bird is just filled with terrors, presented in an episodic fashion, moving from one act of violence to the next. It’s a very technically impressive film, but despite being well executed and formally smart, it does become a little soulless. It is trying a bit too hard to shock, and not trying enough to engage on an intellectual level.
The Painted Bird does get a lot right, in spite of my criticisms. It is an experience that creates a real sense of pain, which is vital to understanding this history. We must ask how the youth managed to survive such a time, and how angry and tormented it must have made them. The film has attracted notable actors like Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, and Harvey Keitel, all of whom lend it credibility. It is a film of almost no words, as it consists mostly of grunts, screams, and cries. It is somewhat interesting that the dialogue is in the interslavic language, which is constructed. Though this fact perhaps only interests me because I enjoy linguistics. The Painted Bird is a strong experience, at the very least. It draws a reaction. Sadly it does not channel that into any real insights on history, reality, or society. It’s a mighty work, yet a frustrating one.
The release includes the 125 minute making of 11 Colours of the Bird and a booklet booklet featuring an essay on the film by Jason Wood.