‘The Painted Bird’: Interview with Director Václav Marhoul

Successive vignettes only cement a scorched view of humanity that includes incest, bestiality, rape and general mayhem.

In a perfect world, the movie “The Painted Bird” would be playing this week at a select venue near you. A beautifully crafted cinematic experience, “The Painted Bird” exceeds expectations for what a foreign film in redolent black-and-white set in a tumultuous world can accomplish. Movies like this are designed for the big screen.

But it’s not a perfect world and “The Painted Bird” will be discovered in a different way. Namely streaming into your cyber world via the usual platforms. Fittingly the film depicts the polar opposite of a perfect world.

A young boy wanders through Eastern Europe during the Second World War encountering more horrors than the circles of Dante’s Hell. The movie is adapted and directed by Václav Marhoul based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski.

Marhoul’s been a familiar face as an actor in various Czech Republic films over the last two decades plus he’s directed previous films influenced by WWII and Raymond Chandler.  

For “The Painted Bird” Marhoul spent two years securing rights, three years writing the script and four years financing the project. Add a 104-day shooting schedule over a year-and-a-half.

Marhoul spoke with testset via Zoom from a country house about forty-kilometers outside of Prague.

“We were eleven-years in development, I shot it chronologically page by page so I am not jumping like a rabbit through the script from page 15 to page 65,” says Marhoul.

“One reason is the progression of seasons. Spring, Autumn Summer, Winter; more importantly because of small Petr Kotlár the main character. He is growing while we are filming, not just physically but mentally. Over one-and-a-half years he changed, his face changed. Sometimes I would re-write scenes he had to play because he had mentally changed and it affected the character.

“I tell him he is lost, he is tying to find his parents, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But he was lost – one day when we were shooting the Labina scenes he called her Marta, which was the scene we shot a year ago.

“He was such a nice boy and of course it was difficult for him because he spent do many days and months with adults; he was never around children. He had two coaches who were there for him on the set every minute. But it was tough; he’s missing his friends and his dog,” remarks Marhoul.

Specific influences

“There are three films that are direct influences on this film. In the movie ‘Come and See’ [d. Elem Klimov, 1985] the camera is not so excellent but what the director is saying is so important,” says Marhoul.

“Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev’ was another film that influenced me.”

The eight chapters plus epilogue of “Rublev” are the exact divisions Marhoul uses for the nine chapters of “The Painted Bird,” each defined by a character.

The last film Marhoul mentions will be known perhaps only by cineastes as the film considered the greatest film made in Czechoslovakia, “Marketa Lazarová.” [d. Frantisek Vlácil, 1967]

“This film is simply one of the best, the director worked in the Communist era so he’s not well known in the West. He couldn’t travel of course, and finally he got into trouble with the Communist,” says Marhoul.

All three of these films are available on disc through the Criterion Collection. While “Come and See” takes place during the Second World War the other titles are examples of epic storytelling set amongst medieval backgrounds.

There were also two books Marhoul pointed out: “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” by Timothy Snyder and “Resilience” by Boris Cyrulnik. “These book are very important to me.”

The Dark Ages

As the protagonist begins his journey he’s engrained in such a primitive lifestyle that the viewer may be unaware the story unfolds in the 20th century. Left in the care of an elderly relative Petr abandons the house upon her death only to wander into a village where’s he apprehended and turned over to a witch.

Successive vignettes only cement a scorched view of humanity that includes incest, bestiality, rape and general mayhem, all with a bent towards ancient customs. It’s only when a German plane flies overheard over an hour into the movie that we realize we’re living in the near past.

“We shot some scenes in the west part of the Ukraine and it felt like the Middle Ages,” says Marhoul. “It was six weeks before I saw a tractor; the people use horses. There were a few people that had cars. We lived in such a dirty place. Here the women are silent and the men don’t shake hands.”

An international cast includes Barry Pepper, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier and Stellan Skarsgård.

One particularly impressive set piece depicts Cossacks attacking a village.

“Historically 200,000 Cossacks fought during the Second World War. Most of them were with the Red Army but 20,000 fought for the Nazis against the Red Army,” explains Marhoul.

“This scene was the most expensive in preparation. Before shooting I spent four days preparing the shots. Once we start burning the village we can’t stop shooting. We couldn’t use the fire department, the buildings were burning for real.

“In two days we set up 96 shots. We used three crews. I was shooting the most important scenes in my point-of-view and the other two crews shooting coverage.”

Special Effects

While some of the incidents in the film have been singled out for their horrific nature what transpires on screen is far less graphic than the average R-rated horror/slasher thriller.

The title refers to a bird that has had its wings painted.

“The scene is symbolic. When the painted bird is released back to a flock of birds they kill it in the sky because it is different,” says Marhoul.

“The flock of birds was the most difficult shot. We had forty people working on that for months. The background was the just the birds in the sky.”

The production utilized the Prague post-production studio UPP, with many international credits and used by directors from around the world.

In the opening scene other boys in the woods attack Petr and his pet ferret. “I had to prove to the committee in the UK when they licensed the movie for distribution that no animals were harmed. It was digital effects. I had to prove that I didn’t burn the ferret,” says Marhoul.

“We showed them the live video of the scene being shot, we had used a live ferret but she only ran in a circle trying to catch a ball. Then we used an animated model, and then we added the fire. And digitally we put it all together.”

When “The Painted Bird” premiered late last year at film festivals there was a different conversation in the air. “Painted Bird” was lumped together with other end-of-the-year war themed pictures as different as “JoJo Rabbit,” “1917,” “Midway,” and “A Hidden Life.”

“The light is visible only in the dark,” says Marhoul. “Now, because of the Covid epidemic people are much more scared and maybe thinking of more important things in their lives than movies.”

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