Pitting the written word against the moving image in a battle to determine the best fiction.
Editor-in-Chief, Bandit Fiction
Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird (1965; 1976) is the harrowing fictional account of the experiences of an unnamed young boy who has been sent away from his parents during World War II. A chain of tragedies strike, leaving the boy wandering from place to place in Eastern Europe, battling the elements, fighting for his life and taking refuge with a series of peasants, soldiers and religious figures, many of whom are superstitious, racist, cruel and relentlessly abusive.
Premiering and receiving acclaim in 2019 at a variety of international film festivals, Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of The Painted Bird has yet to see widespread cinematic release, due to a potent combination of an independent production, the global pandemic and the film’s extreme content. Drawing extensively from the source material, the film follows the boy, played by Petr Kotlár, on a harrowing journey through some of the worst hellscapes of WWII.
What’s the difference?
- The film is divided into named sections (Marita, Olga, etc.), which accord with the boy’s current keeper
- Certain terminology is lost without the boy’s narrative voice, such as his ‘comet’: a makeshift lantern and portable stove
- The film also loses a lot of the child’s perspective and lack of comprehension, which in the book imbues some events with a natural mysticism and unknowability
- Garbos, one of the men the boy lodges with is a paedophile in the film and sexually assaults him, whereas in the novel he only physically abuses the boy
- The sequence and events surrounding the boy’s sexual relationship with Labina, one of his final keepers, are significantly changed from the novel, including the absence of her father and brother
- A variety of the actions and names from the book are attributed to other characters in the film, sometimes combining two figures or scenes into one
- The Kalmuks’ sack of a village towards the conclusion is toned down for the film, with most of the extreme sexual violence removed
- The final sequence of the film is also altered in many ways from the novel: the boy doesn’t keep his Soviet uniform on, neither does he have a friend at the orphanage, nor do they divert a train causing a horrific crash
Drawing on fundamental themes of alienation and othering, The Painted Bird charts the corruption of a boy failed by a superstitious and profoundly uninformed society, as he is pushed beyond the fringes, beaten within inches of his life, and treated as a vessel of evil for nothing more than existing. Told in gut-wrenching first person, the prose provides fine detail to horrors that would make even diehard fans of American Psycho baulk, and such are the frequency and degrees of sexual, physical and psychological violence that many will find this novel unbearable. Nonetheless, Kosiński’s book exists to shine light on often overlooked areas of wartime life – life that is on the warpath but away from the fighting front – and seeks to make a powerful point.
The focus of the fictional WWII narrative usually rests upon the Allied and Axis powers, through a binary lens of good and evil. However, The Painted Bird casts its gaze to those events and places that existed parallel to the theatre of war – Eastern European villages, far from the influence of industrialisation, where the rural populace lived in contest with the seasons, the land and each other, driven towards any course of action that might improve or at least not diminish their unforgiving lives. The novel shows us that, unfortunately, such actions included the subjugation of men, women and children who did not look like them, and the pandering to foreign soldiers from societies whose larger political, technological and social aspirations they simply did not understand.
The deeply superstitious peasants of The Painted Bird live in a Hobbesian state of nature that results in a litany of abuses visited upon its temporarily orphaned boy protagonist. Throughout the book, the boy is routinely tortured and abused by those who grudgingly take him in (under the promise of hard labour), and he is beset by ongoing religious persecution, based on his dark hair and olive skin alone. Even when he turns to the Christian faith and becomes a devotee of prayer in the hope of salvation, he is tortured mercilessly by his keeper, who beats him daily and hangs him by his hands above a hungry dog for hours on end.
More than this, the boy is made to witness the atrocities of others, which are seemingly never-ending: a husband scooping out the eyes of a young farmhand for looking at his wife; a group of peasant wives sexually assaulting and murdering a mystic who lives in the woods; a father, brother and goat taking turns to mate with the only female in the family.
But such ill-will and persecution are self-fulfilling prophecies: through the unrelenting cruelty of the people who inhabit his world, the boy eventually seeks to become the very thing the people accuse him of being – a self-professed agent of evil. His true descent into corruption is, in the end, curtailed by his Soviet radicalisation, but by then the damage is done. When the boy finally returns to his parents, he is forever changed by his personal wartime experience.
The second (and, really, the definitive) edition of The Painted Bird (1976) also contains a postmodern and intentionally spelled ‘Afterward’ at the beginning of the novel, detailing many of the injustices Kosiński faced following publication. In particular, there was a concerted backlash from the people and government of Poland, who rejected their portrayal and denounced the author as slanderous. The media whipped up a frenzy that saw US-residing Kosiński and his cancer sick mother, who still lived in their hometown, become the target of prolonged physical and verbal attacks, for no more than publishing something that explicitly regards itself as a work of fiction. And many of those wounded attackers sought violent retribution against an author and an old lady without ever having laid eyes on the offending text.
Therein lies the novel’s core strength: this is a work of fiction that contains many crucial first- and second-hand truths, portraying the grim reality of war that doesn’t often make its way into our classrooms and history books. That there was such an incensed reaction to it, especially from a country that was doing a roaring trade in antisemitism around the time of the novel’s publication, is testament to its dedication to speak truth to power.
Opening on a hideous scene of the young protagonist (Petr Kotlár, who is already missing his front teeth) being chased down, beaten and having his ferret burned alive as it writhes in circles on the ground, Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird is every bit as brutal as its literary counterpart, with a loaded cast that includes Udo Kier, Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård. The film tacks pretty close to the novel, eschewing a singular, driven narrative in favour of the episodic wanderings of the boy, as he moves from one brutality to the next. Like the novel, it makes these into independent chapters, fading to black before showing us the next stop, home or horror on the boy’s journey.
The Painted Bird is shot in black and white, which feels true to the period it represents, but also to the diffuse moral qualities of its content and subject matter: never do we see more shades of grey, or more darkness, than in black and white. Moreover, colour would have distracted from the film’s message and dramatic heft, by drawing our focus to the gory, grim details – say, of a man’s gouged eyes, a ferret on fire, or a boy dumped in a full latrine – rather than what is really important.
The symbolism and connotations in The Painted Bird’s mise-en-scène are rife from the outset – the boy’s striped pyjamas; the various animals’ blood on his hands – all building a sense of foreboding for the obscenities to come, whilst situating the viewer within the brutal landscape of wartime Eastern Europe. This is also evident from very first line of dialogue, “It’s your fault”, spoken to the boy by his aunt, which sets the stage for the victim blaming and othering that define the film and, indeed, this period of world history.
Having said that, we are left to merely assume events’ temporal location for the first hour of the film, which shows neither gatling gun, bomber nor soldier. Perhaps to contribute to this ambiguity, or to avoid the novel’s controversies, Marhoul chose Interslavic for much of the film’s dialogue – a recently devised (2006), pan-Slavic language designed to bridge communications between the Slavic people of different nations – ensuring no single national community would identify with the characters’ cruelties.
Just as in the novel, animals are a key motif throughout, providing mirrors and touchpoints for the excessive brutality and offering a strong thematic underpinning. This is, of course, most prominent in the painted bird itself: Lekh, a bird breeder and one of the boy’s more pleasant custodians, paints a small bird and releases it into a circling cloud of its own kind above. Not recognising the bird as one of their own, the others swarm and kill it in the air. This metaphor speaks to the boy’s plight, but also the plight of the ethnic groups persecuted throughout the war, whose very otherness comes from a place external to themselves, dictated by those with an interest in manipulating the social narrative.
The film’s visual language is striking, remaining neither noticeably experimental nor commonplace. Marhoul and cinematographer Vladimír Smutný use each of the gifts offered by the period, the mode of living, the elements and the landscape, embedding the camera between nature, humanity and the latter’s grotesque machinations. Depth is masterfully employed from shot to shot, taking every opportunity to bring contrasting figures into relief, matched by a wide-angle framing that opens up the scene, charting the dimensions and multitudes of poverty and prejudice.
The Painted Bird is unafraid to show the scores of common people – gentry, townsfolk and peasants alike – who aided the Third Reich’s proliferation and ascension, and bought into the populist hype, wilfully othering anyone who didn’t look like themselves, speak their language or worship their god. These common people allowed themselves to be manipulated by bitesize propaganda designed to engage base prejudices, and the anger, vitriol and abuse they display towards a young boy, never mind an entire people, serves as a salient warning, lest we let ourselves be led along again by those desperately seeking power.
And the winner is…
Marhoul’s film should be considered a serious and important addition to the WWII cinematic canon, but its strengths stem directly from the confessional powers of the novel. Though Kosiński goes unnervingly deep into the details of torture and abuse surrounding his protagonist, and adopts a questionably pro-Soviet angle towards the novel’s conclusion, he manages to excavate the oft-unspoken cruelties of war on everyday lives, and shines a bright light towards the kind of insidious rhetoric that helps create and perpetuate abhorrent social tragedies.
About the Contributor
Alisdair Hodgson is a film, poetry, entertainment and fiction writer based in Scotland. He is also Bandit Fiction’s own Editor-in-Chief. His short fiction, poetry and non-fiction articles can be found amongst a variety of magazines, journals and digital publications, and he always has something on the stove. Find him @Youthanised.