‘The Painted Bird’ a Study in Brutality

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Petr Kotlár as “A Boy” in the new adaptation of Jerzy Kozinski’s novel “The Painted Bird.” Courtesy of IFC Films

Hanya Yanagihara’s widely acclaimed novel “A Little Life,” the critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in a 2015 review in The New York Review of Books, had “duped” readers.

Conditioned through various means to understand gratuitous suffering and anguish as evidence of depth, Mendelsohn wrote, readers had fallen prey to Yanagihara’s book.
The novel, which follows four college friends through their trials in life and art in New York City, focuses primarily on the quiet one among them, Jude.

Jude, Yanagihara reveals in piecemeal fashion, was subjected to sexual, physical and emotional abuse as a child, pinballing from abuser to abuser, each of them escalating the lurid cruelty. Even into adulthood, this cruelty persists, culminating in an ending where Jude is deprived of the person he loves most in the world. Then, he commits suicide.


Responding to charges of unfairness in his review by Yanagihara’s editor, Gerald Howard, Mendelsohn wrote this:

“Yanagihara’s slathering-on of trauma is, in the end, a crude and inartistic way of wringing emotion from the reader — an assaultive repetitiveness that can hardly claim to be one of the ‘techniques … designed to lead us by degrees into a realm of authentic emotion and aesthetic bliss’ that Howard rightly mentions as a hallmark of a genuine novelistic achievement.”

It is hard to avoid this sense of “assaultive repetitiveness” in watching “The Painted Bird,” a recent adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel of the same name. The movie briefly features Barry Pepper, Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård and Udo Kier, and is subtitled. It is available on Amazon.

During World War II, a young boy (Petr Kotlár) has been stashed away with his aunt while his parents search for safety. He’s a good boy; he folds his clothes, eats his soup and holds the bowl that catches the splattered blood of a decapitated chicken. When his aunt dies, he’s forced to take to the road, finding food and shelter where he can. What he finds more often is a world that needs him to be a Jew, or a “Gypsy” — even though it’s not clear whether he is either.

Over the course of the movie, the boy wanders into a peasant village, where he’s savagely beaten and sold to a medicine woman who assures everyone that he is both a Jew and a vampire; he’s raped, beaten and tortured by an older man who the boy then kills by dragging him into a pit of rats; he watches a miller gouge out the eyes of a servant whom he suspects of sleeping with his wife; he’s beaten in the street by a German man; raped and beaten by a young woman; delivered by another group of peasants into the hands of Nazi soldiers as a form of appeasement; thrown into a bubbling trough of human waste for dropping a Bible; and slapped by a street vendor, who calls him a Jew. He sees suicides, rapes and murders, all rendered in black and white.

All of this suffering is scaffolding to the central metaphor of the movie. One of the only people who shows the boy tenderness is a bird breeder (Lech Dyblik) who teaches the boy how to catch the birds and care for them. To teach the boy a lesson, or maybe just for fun, the man paints a few lines onto a common bird, and then releases the bird into the sky, where it joins its compatriots. The flock pecks the bird to the death, and it spirals down to the ground.

Ah! The boy is the painted bird! He, too, suffers at the hands of his fellow man, who cannot see that he is just like them, and punish him for it.

What are we to make of this? The absurdity of bigotry, that we could look at God’s random brushstrokes on any one of us as evidence of intolerable difference? That in-groups require a subhuman subject to understand themselves as more fully human? Surely, none of these conclusions are particularly hard to come by, and they certainly don’t require the overabundance of shocking evidence that the movie provides. The scene with the painted bird is 45 minutes into the movie; there are two hours left, at that point.

One of the kinder Soviet soldiers who briefly takes the boy in toward the end of the movie is played by Aleksei Kravchenko, who starred as a young child in “Come and See” (1985). Like “The Painted Bird,” “Come and See” follows a young boy as he’s subjected to forces beyond his control during WWII, witnessing horrors and violence of great intensity wherever he goes.

“Come and See” rivals “The Painted Bird” in its brutality, but there is a reason that some consider the former to be one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made; rather than bludgeoning the audience with degradation and horror and leaving it that, “Come and See” shows more sustained interest in the people who suffer, especially evident in the frequent close-up shots of faces. A camera interested in faces can show you something human; not so for a camera that only finds such faces interesting when they’re broken. l

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