The Painted Bird is available on DVD and on digital. Come and See is available 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 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 was 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 worrying; 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. In both films, the transformative effect of hatred, division and violence on the young sat at the heart of the narrative, reflecting the absolute horror of the Second World War in Europe. But as I thought about our conversation on the train home, it also occurred that these comments pointed to a broader public reluctance to face the reality of the darkest points in human history through film. I, therefore, found myself asking whether our modern sensibilities cloud our ability to own the horror of the past.
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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 survivors, their struggle for life equal to any superhero. Many of these unsung heroes are children whose lives have been invaded by darkness. For children during War, this shadow stays with them and rewrites their view of humanity. The Painted Bird and Come and See reflect this transformation of 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 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 that War is about more than just soldiers; it is about communities, families, power, revenge and abuse. In War, the hatred of others seeps into every layer of society, and children are not spared this; both The Painted Bird and Come and See understand this, and as a result, they challenge our rose-tinted view of childhood innocence. Here, the realities of conflict are illuminated for all to see, reminding us that not all stories have a happy ending or justice.
The Painted Bird (2019) ©️Eureka Entertainment
In The Painted Bird, Czech writer-director Václav Marhoul leaves no stone unturned in reflecting on the atrocities of a War that ravaged Central Europe. Here a lost, abused, and isolated young Jewish boy named Joska (Petr Kotlár) acts as our guide, and his journey is a long and harrowing walk through the hate, oppression, and abuse that seeps from fascism. We follow Joska through devastated communities, segregated and impoverished by conflict, as we witness the violence around him consume his young soul. As the journey progresses, Joska’s innocence is replaced by the need to survive, and while the final scenes offer us a glimmer of light, we know the boy has been changed forever by his experiences.
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’. Like Joska, his journey is one of apocalyptic horror at the hands of Nazi forces and locals. In Come and See, Flyora’s attempts to retain his 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 enveloped by inescapable hate and terror.
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Come and See (1985) ©️Mosfilm
The visceral power of both films lies in their ability to take an audience beyond the bravado of mainstream War movies. In both films, documentary-like precision portrays a relentless and traumatic childhood journey that never shies away from War’s abject terror and destruction. By showing us this through a child’s or teen’s eyes, the unspoken boundaries of visual storytelling crumble as our notions of childhood safety, innocence and security are challenged. As a result, The Painted Bird and Come and See force us to be silent witnesses to the abomination of hate. But suppose we allowed our modern sensibilities to stop filmmakers from reflecting on the darkest periods of our history? Would we not be choosing to forget and rewrite the horror of what we were and still are capable of as humans?
The Painted Bird
Director: Václav Marhoul
Come and See
Director: Elem Klimov