There’s a scene in The Office U.S. when Gabe tries to make a simple office Halloween party into something truly scary. Gabe, who has been experimenting with making his own “horror” films, gets the idea to expose his fellow employees to the frightening images of his creativity. The amateur film is nothing but unsettling images filmed in black and white. Why do I bring up this scene from The Office, you ask? Because The Painted Bird is just another unsettling movie from the mind of someone like Gabe.
The Painted Bird illustrates the horrific events surrounding WWII — told through the eyes of a young Jewish boy named Joska. After Joska find his aunt dead, he is passed from person to person — fighting for his life along the way. The story severely lacks a narrative foundation. It aims to be Spielberg’s, Schindler’s List, or even Tarkovsky’s, Stalker, but fails in execution. When Spielberg adapted the story of Ozkar Schindler for the big screen, he wanted to show the persecution of the Jewish people without shying away from its horrors.
But when it comes to The Painted Bird, there are just some things that you shouldn’t see. And in this film’s case, some things that have nothing to do with elaborating on the atrocities of WWII, but rather just terrifying moments that you cannot unsee.
Adapted from the novel by Jerzy Kosiński, The Painted Bird was a rather controversial novel upon its release. The book’s detailed story led many people to assume that young Joska was based on Kosiński’s own personal experiences through WWII. Now I’m not here to critique the novel, but if the film stays true to its source material, then I can only imagine that the novel is a bore. There is nothing here but pure psychological torment for the viewer. With the film on the verge of a three hour runtime, it hits you in that “when will this be over” bone after 30 minutes. But for being an atrociously long film, there’s nothing here that grabs you — at least, nothing good. The Painted Bird relies heavily on its aesthetic while leaving the story to fall by the wayside. There’s no narrative, only the melancholy looks from one character to another.
We all know that war films, no matter the time period, are often hard to watch. But as I write this review, my stomach begins to churn — unable to get these horrifying images out of my head. Maybe in another time, when the world isn’t in utter chaos, I could appreciate The Painted Bird’s masterful cinematography and direction, but right now I can’t recommend this to anyone. Much like Gabe’s “art-house” horror, The Painted Bird is no more than a pretentious film feeding off the fears of its viewers.
The Painted Bird
Directed and Written by: Václav Marhoul
Starring: Petr Kotlár, Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, and Barry Pepper