The Painted Bird (2019) and Come and See (1985)

The horror of War through the eyes of a child

The Painted Bird shows in UK cinemas and on-demand from the 11th September 2020. Come and See is unavailable in the UK and Ireland but can be purchased from the Criterion Collection (USA).

In February, I sat in a press screening room in central London; the film was a comedy/drama, a light movie that was bound to be a crowd-pleaser in the cinema. Next to me sat a fellow critic, and as we waited for the screening to start, our conversation focussed on recent films we had seen. One of these films just happened to be The Painted Bird, Václav Marhoul’s stark adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s novel. As our discussion progressed, it was clear our views on this modern masterpiece were radically different. My fellow critic found the film “too depressing” and stated that while visually stunning, the depictions of child abuse and War were “too graphic” in nature.

I found these comments both fascinating and sad in equal measure. After all, The Painted Bird depicts the abject horror of subverted childhood innocence during conflict and genocide, just as Elem Klimov’s masterpiece Come and See had done in 1985. The transformative effect of hatred, division and violence on the young sitting at the heart of both films as they reflected the absolute horror of the Second World War in Europe. But as I thought about our conversation on the train home, it also occurred to me that these comments pointed to a broader public reluctance to face the reality of the darkest points in human history in films. And I found myself asking whether our modern sensibilities cloud our ability to own the horror of the past.  


We live in a world where audiences lap up films depicting heroes, our concepts of darkness and hate shrouded in an unrealistic fantasy of instant justice. However, the reality is that the greatest heroes are often mere survivors, their struggle for life equal to that of any superhero. Many of these unsung heroes are children whose lives have been invaded by darkness. For children during War, this shadow not only stays with them their entire life but rewrites their view of humanity. The Painted Bird and Come and See reflect this transformation on the young. In both films, each scene slices away the veil of innocence as the child’s bright eyes become lifeless and pale reflections of the cruelty surrounding them. This should be both harrowing, challenging, and stark for the viewer while equally reminding them of the willpower and bravery of the child in surviving such horror.

Both films are designed to take the audience beyond the realms of the traditional War movie, reflecting the fact that War is about more than just soldiers; it is about communities, families, power, revenge and abuse. The hatred of others seeping into every layer of society. Children are not spared this truth, and therefore, these films directly challenge our rose-tinted view of childhood innocence. Here, the realities of conflicts both past and present are illuminated, alongside the true horror and bravery of human actions, as we are reminded that not all stories come with a happy ending or justice.

The Painted Bird (2019) ©️Eureka Entertainment

Within The Painted Bird, Czech writer-director Václav Marhoul leaves no stone unturned in reflecting the atrocities of a War ravaged Central Europe. Here a lost, abused, and isolated young Jewish boy named Joska (Petr Kotlár) acts as our guide. His journey, a long and harrowing walk through the hate, oppression, and abuse that seeps from fascism. We follow Joska through devastated communities segregated and impoverished through conflict as we witness the violence surrounding him consume his soul. His innocence, replaced by the need to survive. And while the final scenes offer us a glimmer of light, we know the boy is changed forever by his experiences, his childhood lost in the mists of War. And yet, we also celebrate his survival against all the odds.

These themes also find a powerful voice within Elem Klimov’s Come and See. Here the genocide and destruction of Belarusian villages during the Second World War are brought to life through the eyes of a young conscript in the local militia ‘Flyora’. His journey, one of apocalyptic horror at the hands of Nazi forces. In Come and See, Flyora’s attempts to retain a belief in humankind are ultimately left in tatters as he witnesses a vicious, drunken and debauched eradication of his people. The poverty-stricken communities of Eastern Europe encased in an incomprehensible terror.

Come and See (1985) ©️Mosfilm

The power of both films lies within their ability to take an audience beyond the bravado of mainstream War movies. Here documentary-like precision is used to portray a relentless and traumatic childhood journey. The result reflects the sheer horror of War through the eyes of a child, as the boundaries of visual storytelling are breached. In both films, the viewer is challenged to step outside of their comfort zone and urgently reflect on the de-humanising effects of War.

These films force us to witness the abomination of conflict and hate by stripping away triumphalism and hero worship. While also reflecting the inbuilt need of humans to survive at any cost. However, suppose we allow our modern sensibilities to stop filmmakers from reflecting the darkest periods of our history. In that case, we ultimately choose to forget the absolute horror of what we were and still are capable of as humans.

The Painted Bird

Director: Václav Marhoul

Cast: Petr KotlárNina SunevicAlla Sokolova, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel

Come and See

Director: Elem Klimov

Cast: Aleksey KravchenkoOlga MironovaLiubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas