Part way through this film, we have the scene from which it gets it title. It is a visual metaphor that overhangs the whole film and gives us the best window into the film’s message. A man grabs a bird in his hand and he paints it, marking it as different. He lets the bird go and it flies up to join its flock: a natural process. The flock, which moved beautifully as one, turns into a cloud of violence and aggression, turning on the painted interloper. The painted bird is pecked savagely and falls from the sky. In terms of cinematic orchestration, it is a stunning sequence – the kind that makes you wonder how they even did it. The black and white is beautiful and the framing is assured; the use of a single, extended take – shot from a distance – is powerful and resonant. But, thematically, the scene is deeply uncomfortable as the message is very clear: this is a film that believes it is natural for us to turn on ‘the other’, on any perceived other. This is a film that feels that it is natural for a group to turn violent, that believes to become the other is to become, necessarily, the recipient of cruelty. It is a deeply pessimistic and nihilistic statement about human nature; it presents us as predatory and naturally intolerant. It also just rings deeply false.
This moment, though cinematic, betrays a deep misunderstanding of prejudice, racism and generalised oppression. It simplifies complex and manufactured power dynamics, enforced and maintained by those that benefit from them, into a vague natural process. Here, hatred of difference is a natural state of affairs, as shown through the choice of natural imagery. This is the viewpoint that permeates this entire film: humans will keep unloading suffering onto other humans. It shows cruelty as a primal instinct within us all, and as a driving force. Not only this, it shows us this ad-nauseum for almost three hours. It is just an endless cavalcade of almost indescribable horrors inflicted on the undeserving. This is further highlighted by the narrative framing, in which we follow a young boy as he wanders (or is forced) from place to place. He functions as the perennial other in this film set during WW2 in an unnamed Eastern European country. He is framed as Jewish but also marginalised as a Gypsy. This all links to the overall vagueness the film has when it is dealing with very real parts of history – a persistent issue. This child, primarily, exists as a foil: a base symbol of innocence to highlight the violence around him. But, through this, we see cruelty as even more of a default and not engaging in it is shown as a naïve and childish state. We also have a manufactured arc to his character that is built around him succumbing, to greater and lesser extents, to the cruel world around him. There are moments of cathartic violence that give base thrills (one moment is actually very satisfying and is depicted with admirable restraint) but, in general, this character is a pawn of the film in the same way he is a pawn of the filmic reality.
The filmmakers do this child a real disservice. It is an excellent and committed performance but he exists only as a symbol and as a foil. The face of humanity here is not one with personality, heart or life. This child is a Tabula Rasa forced to undertake the suffering of the world. To an extent, the film’s structure is complicit in this exploitation: robbing him of humanity through presentation. But the issues do not stop here: this onslaught of imagined horrors ends up doing a real disservice to violent realities and to actual suffering. Though the story is inspired by the real life events of the author of the novel on which the film is based, it is very divergent. Once again, the archness of the presentation (where our central character is symbol rather than a human) takes away from this completely, and the lack of humanity and goodness in this film is not reflective of real life experience. The story of the author is one of real horror and hardship but it is one ultimately defined by the good acts made by others in the face of this suffering. It is one that restores some faith in humanity. This film keeps those moments few and far between (also, one of the key moments of ‘goodness’ – and maybe the first major one – is from a Nazi soldier. Which is deeply uncomfortable), and always tempered by something else. The focus here is on successive moments of cruelty with only a handful moments of vague (and often tainted) acts of decency that really only serve to further highlight the overwhelming amount of suffering. Goodness is not a defining trait of humanity here, it is an ineffective rarity that is drowned out by the cruel centre of our being. And this is where opinions will greatly differ; for me, I fundamentally disagree with the film’s outlook on reality.
Where this critique is sharpened is in the representation of the Nazi atrocities of WW2. It takes a while before we get to the Nazis, and by this point we have witnessed so much senseless cruelty and violence that we have become, to a great extent, desensitised. The film is clearly trying to present violence as an everyday reality but, ultimately just normalises it. When we do see Nazis, and they are committing atrocities (like everybody in this film), they do not feel like outliers. Nazi violence feels like an extension of human nature and one more moment of suffering on a road defined by it. For me, this is deeply disturbing, as you watch Nazi atrocities and respond to them as prosaic. The film dilutes the impact of the extremity of Nazism by contextualising it in a world of cruelty, which makes Fascism seem like a reflection of human nature as opposed to a corruption of humanity. Fundamentally, I feel that a film should not inure its audience to the horrors of the Nazis, and of Fascism. By presenting Fascistic violence in the same tone and manner as everything else in the film, it becomes part of the monotonous horror of quotidian existence, as opposed to a landmark horror we need to confront. Why this rings so false is because Nazism is not human nature. People are not Fascists at heart. This film presents cruelty as banal which betrays a deep misunderstanding of the very necessary arguments made about the banality of evil that facilitated the Holocaust. The documentary Shoah shows this very powerfully, how the banality of Nazism was its bureaucracy; how systems were set up so that Nazis could distance themselves from their actions and how the actual banality was a policy, was an enforced state. This does not mean random cruelty, which is what this film trades in. The reality is much more horrifying. This film shows violence as interchangeable and natural, as throwaway. The real horror is the specificity of Nazism, the targeted approach and the bureaucratic barbarism. By trading in shock value, this film dilutes real horrors.
At this point, it feels necessary to compare the film to Elem Klimov’s Come and See, one of – if not the – greatest films about the Second World War ever made. This comparison is necessary because the Painted Bird directly invokes it. First of all, it exists as a clear stylistic cousin. The following of a single boy through a linear series of escalating hardships exists in both but they also share a cinematic viewpoint. Both films are about positioning the viewer as a witness and, through cinematography, let horrors play out. Extended shots and large scale set-pieces (populated by assorted horrors) are used in both, for a similar intent. The comparison goes further though, as The Painted Bird even includes Aleksei Kravchenko, the actor who played the boy from Come and See, as a soldier for a cameo. It is a direct linking that only serves to point out why Come and See is essential and why this is inessential. On the surface, they seem very similar; in practice, they are extremely divergent. Come and See is about showing you real horrors: it is focused on the specific atrocities of war – of what the Nazis did – and the collateral damage of this. The things you are forced to see in the film feel like things you should witness. They may not be ‘factual’ but they reflect reality. Come and See is immersing you, through cinema, in horrors and the dehumanisation of the protagonist feels purposeful, and effective, and he even has a clear arc. The Painted Bird is just a string of manufactured atrocities that are not focused or unified. It is just imagined cruelty after imagined cruelty and it does not feel like a thing you need to see. Come and See also has wider content and important expositional moments that are built around its central critique. The Painted Bird is just nihilism.
Ultimately, the arch beauty and cinematic craft of The Painted Bird cannot be denied. Every inch of it feels meticulous and cohesive and the photography is stunning. Unfortunately, it is a sheen of high-art placed on relentless and unearned cynicism. The film manufactures a reality in which cruelty is the only currency and then pretends it is a harsh and relevant reflection of reality. It is a film that wants to be Come and See by way of Bela Tarr. And I love Come and See, and I love Bela Tarr (I’m that kind of insufferable film fan that counts Satantango as one of the greatest films ever made) but this is not either of those, though it wears their clothes. This isn’t even Salo. The films it apes have a humanity and an emotional spectrum that this dispassionately refuses to engage with. It also trades purely in vagueness in a territory that demands specificity. Come and See and Satantango do not take place in vague realities, they take place in definitive places at important historical moments. This anonymised, dehumanised response dilutes real suffering and uses harsh reality as a playground for grim-dark fan fiction. To be honest, all you need to know about this film is that in a scene where an army pillages a town (full of destruction, torture, sexual assault and infanticide) the filmmakers use the Wilhelm Scream. And in that, is all you need to know about what you should think about this film.