A dear friend of mine, Alex Kurzem, is a Holocaust survivor. Until about 20 years ago, how he managed to survive when everyone else in his family had died was his secret until his son, Mark, wrote a book about it. According to Mascot, at the age of 6, Alex ran away from his parents’ home in Belarus SSR, eventually becoming a mascot for the Latvian SS and hiding his Jewish heritage from everyone – including his own family – for decades. Over the ensuing years, Alex has been put through the ringer by people all over the world who say that his story is just too incredible to be true. I’ll concede that Alex may have embellished some parts of his story over the years but DNA doesn’t lie and the photos are there. He is Jewish and he was a Nazi mascot.
American-Polish novelist Jerzy Kosinski (Being There) wrote a book in 1965 that’s not too dissimilar to Alex’s own experiences. Entitled The Painted Bird, it’s the story of a boy who wanders from village to village in war-torn eastern Europe trying to stay alive while hoping to find his family. At the time, Kosinski said the story was autobiographical but he later retracted that statement and admitted that it was fiction. (It’s perhaps because of this book that Alex’s book was met with so much skepticism.) Over the years and up to his suicide in 1991, Kosinski also came under fire over claims of plagiarism and using a ghost writer, or a team of ghost writers, on the book.
As controversial as it is, Kosinski’s story has now been made into a film of the same name by Czech director and producer Václav Marhoul, who also wrote the screenplay. Unlike in the book where the boy’s ethnicity is ambiguously left as either Jewish or Roma, in the film, he is implied to be Jewish. As the film opens, a 10-year-old boy (played by Czech actor Petr Kotlár), is living with his “aunt” in the countryside somewhere in central or eastern Europe. His parents have gone off and have left him with the woman for his own safety but when the old lady suddenly dies, the boy takes off to look for his family. He walks to another village where he is assumed to be evil due to his dark complexion. He is taken in by an old healer who exploits his alleged skills for profit. As time goes on, he moves on from one village to another where, each time, he is subjected to psychological, physical or sexual abuse by the adults who take him in. He eventually comes under the care of Mitka (Barry Pepper, CRAWL; the MAZE RUNNER films), a kind Russian soldier but even he can’t protect the boy when the war comes to an end. The boy finally ends up in a home for war orphans but by then his spirit is completely broken.
Marhoul shot THE PAINTED BIRD over 16 months and probably in sequence as the boy’s features mature as the story goes on. International audiences will no doubt spot a few familiar faces in the large cast including Udo Kier (DOWNSIZING; BLADE), Stellan Skarsgård (MAMMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN; the AVENGERS franchise; TV’s CHEROBYL), Julian Sands (A ROOM WITH A VIEW) and Harvey Keitel (PULP FICTION; THE PIANO; BAD LIEUTENANT; RESERVOIR DOGS). The director made the interesting choice to have everyone speak Interslavic, which is a semi-constructed language created to facilitate communication between the people of the various Slavic countries. In that way, he was able to both maintain the anonymity of the location and account for the different pronunciations spoken by the non-native cast.
THE PAINTED BIRD premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2019 and had its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival one week later. Both screenings had its share of audience members walking out due to the harrowing scenes of brutality but at the film’s screening at the Warsaw International Film Festival a few weeks later, it received an 8-minute standing ovation. If it’s any consolation, the closing credits assure audiences that adult body doubles were used for the sex scenes involving children. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen that before!
I’ll admit that more than a few scenes can be challenging to watch and, at 169 minutes, you’ll probably be checking your watch more than once, but if you stick with it as the audience in Warsaw did, you’ll be rewarded with a rare cinematic experience. The film was nominated in 11 categories at the 2020 Czech Lion Awards and it ended up taking home nine trophies including Best Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography. At Venice, it took home the UNICEF Award, which is traditionally given to the film that best addresses children’s rights issues.
THE PAINTED BIRD is available now on Hulu and may also be available on other streaming services in your area. As of now, there are no plans to bring it to Hong Kong’s cinemas. Although the film’s pace is slow, it’s an incredible story that’s well worth your time. It’s certainly the most powerful and thought-provoking film I’ve seen this year.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, November 27th, 8:30 am HK time!
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