The film The Painted Bird (Nabarvené ptáče), written and directed by Václav Marhoul, was inspired by the 1965 novel of the same name by literary hoaxster Jerzy Kosinski. Kosinski tried to pass off the story and its horrendous events as autobiographical or at least semi-autobiographical, but as the book neared publication, it was revealed that it bore no resemblance to Kosinski’s life, so it was marketed purely as a novel.
The film, which is in black and white, begins with a Jewish boy (Petr Kotlár) running through the snow with his pet animal. He is tackled by bullies who set his pet on fire. When the boy returns home, his aunt tells him it’s his own fault for wandering too far into the forest. Besides, since he is only staying with her temporarily, he should just follow orders. Soon, the aunt dies of natural causes. The boy, shocked to find her dead, inadvertently sets fire to the house and burns it down. Now he is without a guardian, without a home and he doesn’t even know where he is.
Over most of the next 2 hours 49 minutes, the boy is exposed to and subjected to one appalling example of human ignorance and cruelty after another. First, it’s the superstitious Polish peasants, who hate Jews and outsiders in general. Then it’s the German soldiers and Soviet soldiers. Even when one stranger or another takes him under his or her wing, it’s still ugly. Inevitably, the boy becomes cruel and murderous himself, attacking not just people who deserve it, but innocent strangers as well. Very late in the film, he learns why his Jewish parents sent him away, and there is even a hopeful ending.
Several famous actors appear in The Painted Bird in minor roles. For example, Harvey Keitel plays an old priest and Stellan Skarsgård a German soldier who saves the boy’s life. Udo Kier portrays a jealous husband who punishes a hired hand in a particularly disgusting manner.
The characters speak Interslavic, an invented language created in 2006 to make it easier for people in Slavic countries to communicate with one another. However, in the context of the film, it symbolizes the regional universality of intolerance and extreme perversion and violence. This is not a film for the faint of heart.
The title refers to an incident in which a man captures a bird, paints it a different color and then lets it return to its flock, where it is attacked by its own kind as an outsider.