The Painted Bird (2019) and Come and See (1985): The horror of War through the eyes of a child

Back in February, I sat in a press screening room in central London; the film was a comedy/drama. The type of light frothy movie that proves to be a crowd-pleaser in most multiplex’ across the UK. Next to me sat a fellow critic and as we waited for the screening to start our discussion naturally focussed on recent films we had seen. One of these films just happened to be The Painted Bird, Václav Marhoul’s stark and shocking adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s novel. However, our views on this modern masterpiece of filmmaking could not have been more divergent. My fellow critic informing me that he found the film “too depressing”, and 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 childhood innocence during conflict and genocide. Just as Elem Klimov’s masterpiece Come and See had also done in 1985. The transformative effects of hatred, division and violence on the young sitting at the heart of two films that aimed to reflect the real horror of the Second World War in Europe. However, to me, these comments also pointed to a broader public reluctance to face the reality of human history in films. Our modern sensibilities, clouding our collective ability to own our darker past.  

We live in a world where audiences lap up films depicting the hero; darkness and hate shrouded in an unrealistic and fantastical view of instant justice. However, the reality is that heroes are often mere survivors. The struggle for life, eating away the innocence, security and peace they once held dear; as a devasting shadow of darkness descends. 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. Each scene slicing away the veil of innocence as the bright eyes of the child become lifeless and pale reflections of cruelty. The result of which should be harrowing, challenging and stark.

These films are designed to take the audience beyond the realms of the traditional gun-wielding War movie; reflecting the fact that War is about more than just soldiers. It is about communities and families torn apart, power, revenge and abuse. The hatred of others seeping through every layer of society. With children sitting in a no-mans land of oppression, violence and murder. However, this, in turn, directly challenges our western view of childhood innocence. Shining an uncomfortable light on the realities of conflicts both past and present. Our collective responsibilities housed within our ability to understand the real horror of War. And the fact that not every journey comes with a happy ending and justice.

Within The Painted Bird, Czech writer-director Václav Marhoul leaves no stone unturned in reflecting the atrocities of a War ravaged Central Europe. With a lost, abused, and isolated young Jewish boy named Joska (Petr Kotlár) acting as our guide. Conversely, leading us on a long and harrowing walk through the hate, oppression, and abuse that seeps from fascism. 

Indeed as we follow Joska through the devastation of communities segregated and impoverished through conflict, we witness the boy consumed by the violence surrounding him. His innocence replaced by the need to survive as unrelenting darkness seeps into his soul. And while the final scenes offer us a small glimmer of light, we know the boy is changed forever by the events surrounding him; his childhood lost in the mists of experience.

Come and See (1985) ©️ Mosfilm

These themes also find a powerful voice within Elem Klimov’s Come and See. The genocide and destruction of Belarusian villages during the Second World War brought to life through the eyes of a young conscript in the local militia ‘Flyora’. His journey into the apocalyptic horror of the Nazi-led genocide fracturing his humanity. Flyora’s attempts to retain his belief in humankind ultimately left in tatters as Nazi forces embark on a vicious, drunken and debauched eradication of his people. The thick fog, relentless mud and poverty-stricken communities of Eastern Europe incased in incomprehensible terror and violence. In a film that ultimately leaves an indelible mark on the memory of every viewer.

The power of both films lays within their ability to take an audience beyond the bravado of mainstream War movies. Consequently, using an almost documentary-like precision to portray a relentless and traumatic journey. Furthermore, elaborating this by reflecting the horror through the eyes of a child. Hence ensuring audiences squirm with discomfort, as the invisible and unspoken boundaries of visual storytelling are breached. The viewer challenged to step outside of their comfort zone, within a visual and auditory journey that urgently asks us to reflect upon the de-humanizing effects of War.

These are the films that force us to witness the abomination of conflict and hate: contrasting triumphalism and hero worship with the real horror of the human ability for destruction, bloodshed and trauma. While at the same time reflecting the inbuilt need of humans to survive at any cost. Consequently, delivering us films that are designed to make us uncomfortable. However, if we allow our modern sensibilities to stop filmmakers reflecting our darkest history, do we not also choose to forget the real horror of what we were, and still are capable of as humans.

Director: Václav Marhoul

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

The Painted Bird is scheduled for release in UK cinemas and on-demand from the 11th September 2020. 

Director: Elem Klimov

Cast: Aleksey KravchenkoOlga MironovaLiubomiras Laucevicius, Vladas Bagdonas

Come and See is currently unavailable in the UK and Ireland, but can be purchased from the Criterion Collection (USA)