Film After Auschwitz: On Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird”

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“TO WRITE POETRY after Auschwitz is barbaric,” Theodor Adorno argued in a 1951 essay. Ten years later, European filmmakers pondered an analogous dilemma: how, or whether, to represent the Holocaust’s barbarism on film. The conversation’s impetus was Jacques Rivette’s review, in Cahiers du Cinéma, of Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò (1960). The review focused on one tracking shot in the film, which soon became known, shorthand, as “the tracking shot in Kapò.” Pontecorvo has Emmanuelle Riva, playing a desperate Jewish prisoner, throw herself at the electric fence of a concentration camp. The camera then zooms in on her immobile body, suspended Christ-like on the wires. The body and its framing are both beautiful. And this beauty enraged Rivette: “The man who decides at this moment to make a forward tracking shot to reframe the dead body — carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final framing — this man is worthy of the most profound contempt.” The Holocaust, Rivette implied, should not be the object of aesthetic pleasure, especially of the sexualized sort.

Since then, most directors who attempt to represent the Holocaust do so with the tracking shot of Kapò on their minds. Some follow Rivette’s anti-aestheticist dictum, eschewing visual representation of the Holocaust’s horrors altogether, like Claude Lanzmann in Shoah (1985) — or emphasizing these representations’ dizzying lack of clarity, like László Nemes in Son of Saul (2015). Many bypass it cautiously through ellipses and indirections, rendering the Holocaust as an absence at the film’s center: here, one might think of Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013), Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Alan Pakula’s Sophie’s Choice (1982), or Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). A few filmmakers, finally, accuse viewers like Rivette of hypocrisy. Implicating viewers in the prurience that the tracking shot in Kapò inspired, they provoke audiences to admit that they share in its unspeakable, forbidden frisson. Among these provocations one might count Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975).

These categories are not clear-cut, of course. Like real tragedies, well-made tragic fictions sometimes elicit tears as well as nervous laughter — and some films, like Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), self-consciously exploit this effect. An artwork’s self-serious belief in the moral clarity and efficacy of its message can also sometimes make it inadvertently comic to an underwhelmed viewer. “One must have a heart of stone,” Oscar Wilde famously said, “to read the death of Nell without laughing.” Wilde’s point was not that Dickens’s Nell is unworthy of sympathy — but that a novel written by, and for, bourgeois readers, to be read by the glow of their fireplaces, can inspire in these readers little more than crocodile tears. Such was my own response, and I was not alone, to Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2008).

Václav Marhoul’s The Painted Bird (2019) reignites such conversations about authorial intention, audience response, and the ethics of representing the Holocaust. The film follows a young Jewish boy as he tries to survive World War II in an unnamed, generically Eastern European countryside. In the process, he passes through a catalog of atrocities: he is buried in soil and in excrement, thrown to dogs and to crows, exploited in unspeakable ways by men and women. Reviewers have variously hailed this film as a tragic masterpiece, a tragi-comic masterpiece, and as an exercise in exploitative, aestheticized violence. At the Venice, Toronto, and London film festivals, some viewers demonstratively walked out of it. Among the film’s defenders, these walkouts sparked comparisons to Parisians’ philistine response to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913).

How does The Painted Bird want to be seen, and how should one see it? (Should one see it?) In some ways, it is a Wildean film, an endless play of surfaces and masks. Its slipperiness begins with the novel on which it is based, which since its publication has sparked equal amounts admiration and scandal. Written in English by Jerzy Kosiński, a Jewish émigré to the United States from Poland, The Painted Bird (1965) became an instant best seller and won encomiums from Elie Wiesel and Cynthia Ozick. But then, its fame wilted just as dramatically under a battery of charges, none completely confirmed, and some more plausible than others. Kosiński was accused, first, of misrepresenting the story of The Painted Bird as autobiography, which it apparently was not — though opinions differ over whether it was entirely fabricated, cobbled together from accounts of real survivors, embellished, or taken down from the dictation of Roman Polanski. Some critics doubted whether his English was good enough, in 1965, to have written it at all; others wondered if this novel, and Kosiński’s other works, plagiarized Polish sources poorly known in the West.

There is a similar, partly self-conscious shiftiness to Marhoul's film. As Alfred Jarry might put it, its setting is “Pologne, c’est à dire nulle part,” a generically Slavic, folksy countryside that evokes Eastern European lore but refuses to locate itself in any particular nation or region. Within this de-particularized world, many of the actors — including Petr Kótlar, who plays the child protagonist — are making their first international or even European film appearance. Amid their seemingly purposeful anonymity, we recurrently encounter cameos from very recognizable figures of contemporary Western cinema: Stellan Skarsgaard, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Julian Sands, and others. These figures starkly break the film’s illusion of quasi-documentary authenticity. As one’s eyes jerk toward them once they appear on-screen, among the film’s otherwise unfamiliar faces, one half-expects the other actors to be astonished to see them, too.

Beyond these moments of fourth-wall rupture, the internal predictability of the brief episodes these stars and non-stars participate in is ghastly to the point of parody. Rather than let us linger with one facet of its tragedies, the better to understand it, The Painted Bird is a rapid-paced nightmare that none of its participants has the time or the mental capacity to understand. The film disenchants its viewer about human nature with Sadean exhaustiveness. Every touchy person turns out to be a rapist; every aggressive person becomes murderous; each apparently good human being — of whom there are few to begin with — dies very quickly, often of natural causes, as if the climate itself would not sustain them. Amid these hardships, the young protagonist’s survival has the air of a cruel trick of fate or of a parable. Nearly mute, somber, and hardly surprised by what he sees, he seems like a sprite sent by a higher power to test, over and over, a thesis about the evil of the world that hardly needed confirmation. As intertitles separate each person or groups whom he meets, his various encounters are made to seem all the more episodic, more like a typology of terrible behaviors than like a narrative arc — to the point that, when the boy starts to show signs of being emotionally affected by what he sees, the sudden progressive momentum of this change comes as a surprise.

Amid such abruptness and elision, The Painted Bird seems confused and indecisive. This confusion, one soon realizes, stems from a more complicated and more interesting source than a mere wavering between earnest drama and postmodern parody. This is a Holocaust film, but it is also a film about Eastern Europe — an Eastern Europe which it depicts with greater sensitivity and attentiveness than its generic geography might suggest. The film is riven between empathy with Jewish victims of the Holocaust and a punishingly self-absorbed Slavic self-hatred. This latter affect is not without its addictions and pleasures, which bring The Painted Bird into Pasolini’s territory; but unlike in Salò, these pleasures are masochistic rather than sadistic.

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Clues toward the film’s Slavic orientation gather slowly but irrevocably. One gets one’s first, general hints from The Painted Bird’s consistent emphasis on Slavic peasants rather than on German soldiers: the former are much more numerous, and more predictably and innovatively evil, than the latter. These Slavs speak a kind of Eastern European Esperanto called Slovianski or Interslavic language, a made-up tongue with a long and fascinating history. To the uninitiated Western viewer, the language is hard to distinguish from Czech, Slovak, or Polish; to an Eastern European such as myself, it hovers on the brink of intelligibility. Esperanto, which its synthetic, purposefully simplified and universalized grammar might resemble, was created in the 1880s by a Jewish Eastern European as a utopian response to globalization. Interslavic is much older, its origins dating back to the 17th century, its backbone formed from medieval Old Church Slavonic. Strongly associated with the 19th century’s pan-Slavic movement, it embodied the hope — and the quasi-racialized belief — that all Slavic people share a common sensibility and should become one nation. In the early 20th century, this ideology met strong resistance from the Soviet Union, whose party leaders saw it as a reactionary version of the international communist movement.

The ideological conflict between these two versions of Slavic internationalism plays out in The Painted Bird in nearly allegorical ways. The region’s local Slavs — who speak Interslavic — confront the much better organized forces of the Soviet Red Army, come from the east to liberate them from the Nazis. These Soviet soldiers speak Russian, not Interslavic, even though the political project Interslavic represents was supposed to include their language. The cultural as well as linguistic differences between these groups could not be more marked. The Interslavic speakers are generally folksy, superstitious, and disorganized; in moral terms, they are weak, primitive, or depraved. The Soviet soldiers are well organized, secular, refined, and strong. They read books, avenge their loved ones, and eventually come to the young protagonist’s rescue. I exaggerate this dichotomy slightly — at times, these soldiers’ cool, Nietzschean attitude comes under critique as well. But for a post-communist Czech director to create such a quasi-ethnic distinction between communist Russians and the pan-Slavs amounts to an unmistakable polemical statement. It indicts Eastern Europeans not only in relation to their Jewish neighbors, but also by comparison to the Soviets by whom they were soon afterward conquered and persecuted.

This sense of indictment is deepened when one considers Marhoul’s prior filmography, which includes Tobruk (2008), a dark antiwar film about Czech soldiers’ involvement in World War II warfare in Libya. It is also deepened by the echoes between The Painted Bird and Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), a famous Soviet film about the Nazi rapine of Belarussian countryside. Both Marhoul’s film and Klimov’s are told from the perspective of a young boy caught in the midst of the war’s horrors; both represent this young boy’s emotional and moral dissolution in the face of them; and the scenes of violence they feature, as well as the landscapes in which they occur, are often strikingly similar. With one important exception: in Come and See, the Slavic peasants are these events’ victims; in The Painted Bird, very similar-looking peasants are their perpetrators.

From this local perspective, The Painted Bird often assumes a Romantic ominousness. Pan-Slavic dreams of a glorious regional destiny collapse into an equally fantastical sense of the region’s inescapable, natural cursedness. The people it depicts are close to the natural world by virtue of their lifestyle and their quasi-animist customs. The land in which they live seems relatively kind to them in its own turn, for all its hostility to the exceptionally kind and to strangers. We are not in the icy expanses of Siberia, which can feel desolate and nearly indifferent to human beings. Instead, this is the borderland between Western Europe and these huge expanses, which still feels small enough that you’ll encounter a village if you walk for a bit, cold but not so cold that you can’t make your way through it somehow, and find enough people, fruit, and animals to sustain you. The land’s partial generosity, in this regard, feels frightening in part because it is not clear for what purpose it nurtures the beings that reside within it. Harvests and childbirth are hopeful as well as horrific: a way of breaking with the previous season’s violence, perhaps, but also of rooting the local population back in the earth ever more deeply. These overwhelming feelings of cursedness becloud any attempts at structural or political analysis. The ethnic and religious strife we witness is made to seem perversely natural and inevitable.

Marhoul shoots this pan-Slavic nightmare gorgeously, in crisp black and white. His painterly camerawork captures the impossible beauty of landscapes with drowning figures, Dalí-esque gouged eyes, lugubrious village prostitutes in wheat fields, and incinerated weasels; breathlessly attentive to each natural and human detail with equal measure. In one particularly striking shot, frequently replicated in the film’s promotional material, a witch buries the film’s protagonist in the ground when he has a fever, apparently hoping to take the fever away by this measure. The boy survives, whether because of the burying or despite it — but before the woman comes back to get him, he is attacked by ravens, who peck his skull bloody. These are not Alfred Hitchcock’s birds conspiring against humans. They are no more and no less Hobbesian than the witch who keeps the boy with her because the peasants fear him as a demon, or the peasants themselves who throw him in a river as soon as the witch’s back is turned. And in the film’s last few seconds, the boy goes deeper into the countryside landscape he has been crisscrossing, rather than leaving it definitively for points farther west or east. However much those around him insist that he does not belong there, apparently, he cannot leave it, either.

The Painted Bird is thus less preoccupied with the mechanicity of the Holocaust as a modern phenomenon than with the supposedly immemorial energies behind it, energies that its makers continue to search for, fearfully, within themselves. The presence of a few famous Western actors among the film’s sea of generally unknown Slavic ones increases its overall self-hatingly Slavic bias: the film seems to be putting this represented population on trial. Such masochistic Slavic soul-searching can become tiresome. In the midst of its sublimities, individual psychology and development nearly disappear, and non-Slavic characters and contexts flatten. The generality of these self-accusations also come close to repeating racial stereotypes of a kind that provoked World War II’s nefarious ideologies in the first place.

The Painted Bird does succeed in making present to both the Slavic and the non-Slavic viewer the desperate, not fully articulate pathos of this unresolved regional guilt. But the aspecificity of its ethnic self-accusations blunts its critical edge. Gilles Deleuze describes masochism as the desire to orchestrate the conditions of one’s seemingly public punishment. Its pleasures come both from an experience of disempowerment and from a sense of having scripted this disempowerment, in detail, beforehand. Kapò dismayed Rivette because the response it elicited was too ambiguous and jarring. The Painted Bird disappoints because its represented world, dramatic as it is, also seems all too coherent and self-contained.

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Marta Figlerowicz is an associate professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale and the author of Flat Protagonists and Spaces of Feeling.