Torture Porn for Highbrows

Torture Porn for Highbrows
Petr Kotlár in The Painted Bird (IFC Films)

Even in a Holocaust-adjacent movie, what’s the point of ramming home the same point in a hundred sickening ways?




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T
here is so much grim knowledge about the Holocaust available to us, that sticking close to the factual record is the obvious and perhaps best choice. Still, we have all absorbed a lot of Holocaust material over the years, and it’s intriguing when an artist approaches the topic via allegory, fantasy, or even comedy. The Painted Bird, a black-and-white three-hour film written and directed by the Czech Václav Marhoul, seems promising at first: a successor to the ambiguous and strange allegories of the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky, perhaps?

Not really. The Painted Bird is instead a picaresque three-hour litany of child abuse that practically comes with a neon sign flashing “MAN IS CRUEL” at all times. In any given ten minutes, the hapless, silent boy at the center of the movie, Joska (Petr Kotlár), may get beaten, raped, tortured by animals, or all three. What’s the point of ramming home the same point in a hundred sickening ways?

The Painted Bird is based on the novel that made the name of the Pole Jerzy Kosiński, who was later revealed to be a fraud and a plagiarist and committed suicide at age 57. Among those who initially believed that this made-up story was based in memory was Elie Wiesel. Published in 1965, the book was for many years revered as a classic, though it is semi-forgotten today.

Stripped of its authority as a chronicle, the same story comes across as a banal allegory built on a groaner of a metaphor. The titular bird is really the boy, a swarthy kid of about ten who spends years wandering the villages of an unnamed country during World War II. In order to sidestep any notion that the film is meant to indict a single nation or culture, rather than humanity overall, the extremely sparse dialogue is mostly in a manufactured language called Interslavic that combines elements of several Eastern European languages. The boy gets brutalized in the opening seconds and things just get worse. His parents, seen only in a photo, are presumably dead or in a concentration camp. After receiving minimal care from a relative, the boy winds up alone, falling into the clutches of one nasty adult after another. Peasants variously label him a Gypsy, a Jew, and a vampire, but Joska says nothing as he bobs along stoically through various gruesome situations, one of them so horrible I found myself throwing my hands in front of my face to block the images. An hour into the film, you will have grasped all major points, or rather the one major point. Whether depicting a man getting his organs scooped out with a spoon or a woman getting raped with a large bottle that gets kicked up inside her, Marhoul cannot fairly be accused of thematic subtlety. When we finally meet the promised bird, it turns out to be an animal that is attacked and destroyed by the other birds for looking different. The metaphor is about as supple as granite.

I suppose I must award points to The Painted Bird for steering around clichés about war or the Holocaust. From the boy’s point of view, to which Marhoul adheres throughout, the only hints that there might be some kind of pogrom happening somewhere are the Jews he comes across who have been shot while trying to escape from a train. One of the only people who treats the boy humanely is a German soldier; another is a Russian soldier. This must be one of the few anti-war films in which the men in uniform come off no worse than the civilians. But exploring how the mindset of civilians ultimately licenses the barbarism of war has been done far better before, notably by Michael Haneke in his unnerving pre–World War I film The White Ribbon (2009), whose austere look this picture emulates.

Casting an eye at some of the reviews of The Painted Bird — “searing masterpiece,” etc. — I observe, not for the first time, that film critics who are blessed with one of the pleasantest jobs on earth manage their pangs of guilt by lashing out at the societies that make their sinecures possible and also by luxuriating masochistically in the most punitive cinematic experiences they can arrange for themselves. Films with the most trite and simplistic messages get lavished with praise as long as they reward the critics by being “rigorous.” Critics who trot out this word to signal their highest esteem are actually telling us more about who they are and what they enjoy, which is getting their eyeballs lashed with barbed wire. The Painted Bird strikes me as torture porn for highbrows.

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