We laud child Holocaust survivors, but we never really want to know what they did to survive or what they experienced. And we don’t want to know what those experiences did to their souls. “The Painted Bird” gives us a gruesome glimpse of those experiences through the life of one young Jewish boy who is willing to do anything to survive.
Based on the 1965 novel by Jerzy Kosinski, this brutal depiction of a child wandering from one horror to another through Eastern Europe during the waning years of World War II was the Czech Republic’s submission for an Oscar.
Despite its vivid portrayal of the worst that humankind has to offer, this film is a cinematic masterpiece. Juxtaposed with the cruelties of war and ignorant peasants is the beautiful countryside displayed one season after another.
Although the film is subtitled, there’s not a lot of dialogue. Director Vaclav Marhoul gives voice to the characters through incredible facial portraits that speak louder than words. The cameras focus on the faces emitting emotions and reactions that can’t help but generate strong responses from viewers.
The movie opens with the boy trying to adapt to a relative’s home where his parents lodged him, hoping to keep him safe from the Nazi extermination plans. When she dies, he’s on his own. Not only does he learn how to acclimate to life in the forests, he somehow navigates himself to the seeming protection of one adult after another. He learns how to ingratiate himself with each, to stay alive. But his persistent struggle to survive is challenged by unimagined depravity as humans – men and women – sink to less than animalistic levels.
This gut-wrenching graphic film is at times simply hard to watch. But viewers who stay with it are rewarded by a story that will stick in one’s memory long after viewing — whether you want it to or not.