Václav’s brutal film is a universal survival story
Jewish Telegraph, September 2020
IT took director Václav Marhoul 10 years to bring Holocaust film The Painted Bird to the big screen.
Although Prague-born Václav was forced to wait another six months after the coronavirus pandemic delayed its March 27 release date.
The film, finally in cinemas and on digital download from today, stars newcomer Petr Kotlar as a young Jewish boy going from one harrowing situation to another in eastern Europe.
‘The Boy’ is entrusted by his persecuted parents to an elderly foster mother. But the old woman dies and he ends up wandering through the countryside, from village to farmhouse.
As he struggles for survival, he suffers extraordinary brutality meted out by peasants and witnesses the terrifying violence of ruthless soldiers.
I watched the near-three hour film in February to prepare for my interview with Václav. As so long has passed, I thought about watching it again to refresh my memory . . . but I just couldn’t face it.
The Painted Bird is an incredible film, well worth watching, but it is so brutal and upsetting that a second viewing would be hard to stomach.
In fact, when the film premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, audience members walked out because of the brutality.
Amazingly, 60-year-old Václav also doesn’t like the violence.
“I am not Quentin Tarantino,” he told me. “And I don’t like it. When I was thinking of all those violent scenes, I didn’t want to show it.
“I wanted it so the audience would know what’s going on in their own minds. The camera was always from the back, not from the front view.”
Václav would not describe The Painted Bird as a “classic Holocaust movie”.
He said: “It’s a universal story. So he is Jewish, but he could be from any other nation.
“Author Jerzy Kosinski never said in the book that it was Poland or Ukraine or Russia or somewhere else.
“And I have used the Interslavic language — that maybe 40 people speak — because Kosinski said the local people were talking in some special Slavic slang and it was really important for me because I had to . . . my ambition was that no nation should be associated with this story; that it will not be fair to Ukraine people or Polish people.
“People are still saying it’s a Holocaust movie. Okay, not for me, not for me.”
Václav added that he found the creator of the language, who translated the dialogue for the film.
Václav says the story is still relevant today as “so many children are going to be abused or killed around the world, in Afghanistan or Mali, Syria or Libya, doesn’t matter where. So that’s unfortunately still going on”.
The director read The Painted Bird three years before he finished his 2008 film Tobruck, about Czechoslovak soldiers in the Libyan desert in 1941.
“I remembered this book so much,” he told me. “I read many books a month, but I simply couldn’t forget this book.
“I was thinking what my next movie is going to be or where to go. And this book was knocking on my head like a boomerang.
“And I finally said, okay, let’s try. Even I didn’t believe I could obtain the rights because so many people were trying to get them.”
After almost two years of negotiating, Václav was able to secure the rights.
“For so many people this book is about only about brutality and violence, but not for me. I felt that it’s about the most important things in our lives, about the hope and love.
“And the people are saying to me, ‘you must be crazy. This book is not about hope and love’. This story has many levels.”
Václav also believes The Painted Bird had to be made in black and white.
“Five years before the first shooting day, I was scouting locations in east Poland and it was a wonderful, sunny summer day.
“The grass was really green. And the sky was really blue with really white clouds. And in that moment, I said it will never work if the film is in colour because then it is not going to be truthful.
“I felt the colour would damage it. I was thinking that maybe Steven Spielberg, when he made Schindler’s List, had the same problem. Try to imagine Schindler’s List in colour.”
Václav met youngster Petr by chance.
“When I met him the first time he was seven and when we started to shoot he was nine.
“I write all the screenplays for my films in one medieval town, in the south part of the Czech Republic. It’s a wonderful, mysterious town.
“There’s a very special spirit and I like it.
“And I write in the same hotel, same room, same table, same chair for all my screenplays.
“And every evening, I drink wine — I’m a very untypical Czech, I’m not drinking beer — around the corner in a Roma pub, run by Mr and Mrs Kotlar, the grandparents of Petr.
“When I looked at Petr, after five minutes, I felt it’s him and I didn’t try to find another boy. I didn’t organise any casting.
“And when I asked Petr to be the main character in my next movie, he said okay because he didn’t know what that meant.”
By the time the film finished shooting, Petr was 11.
“It was very hard for him because Petr is simply a lucky boy. His life is wonderful.
“He has wonderful parents and wonderful grandparents. He has so many interests in his life, he loves animals and football, so it was hard for him to relate to the character.
“But, physically, some scenes were really hard for him and he was crying.”
Because of the brutality of the story, Petr could not be present for some scenes.
Václav explained that they would shoot a scene using a camera angle that showed Petr was there, then he would be sent away while they finished shooting the scene from a different angle.
To get Petr to show the right emotions, Václav told him to imagine that his beloved dog had gone missing.
“Where is the dog? Where is he? Maybe he is starving, maybe he doesn’t know where to go, maybe a lot of dogs have been stolen by some bad guy,” Václav said. “And because he’s a very sensitive child, I had, in that very second, the right expression in his eyes and on his face.”
He also had to reassure Petr that some scenes were a game and not true.
“He didn’t understand it all, so he wasn’t damaged at all,” Václav added.
The Painted Bird also stars Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel and Julian Sands.
“So many people are thinking that I cast Harvey Keitel because of the marketing and because it would make the film more popular,” Václav explained.
“Believe me, now I’m talking as a director, it wasn’t the issue. I can call anybody around the world, any actor. It was so great. So I was simply thinking, who would be the best.
“When I talked to Harvey and all the people, they knew the book, so that was my big advantage.”
There was controversy about The Painted Bird when it was published in 1965.
It was banned in Poland until the fall of the communist government in 1989. When it was finally printed, thousands of Poles in Warsaw queued up for as long as eight hours to buy copies signed by Koskinski, who was born Józef Lewinkopf.
However, after being translated into Polish, it was read by the people with whom the Lewinkopf family lived during the war.
They recognised names of Jewish children sheltered by them depicted in the novel as victims of abuse by characters based on them.
“‘I not interested in Jerzy Kosinski. I’m interested in The Painted Bird,” Václav told me.
“Kosinski was simply lying. He was a liar because he knew that people would think it was his autobiography and believe it.”
Václav’s first English-language film will be McCarthy, a biopic of notorious former American senator Joseph McCarthy, written by Tom O’Connor.