GFF 2020: The Painted Bird

By Lukas Vojacek

A controversial Czech movie with international cast that infamously made half of the audience in Venice leave the theatre, finally arrived to Glasgow. Is it really as gruesome as some previous reviews suggested?

The Painted Bird is an ambitious war thriller based on the once scandalous bestseller from Polish-American novelist Jerzy Kosiński and adapted for the big screen by Czech director Václav Marhoul (Tobruk). The acknowledged filmmaker was preparing this piece for several years and among the international cast we can find even few well-known Hollywood names, including Harvey Keitel, Stellan Skarsgård, Julian Sands or Barry Pepper. Nearly three-hours long, black and white film earned itself a reputation of a shocking spectacle with many explicit scenes of horrifying violence against women, children and animals that made a number of spectators in various countries to walk out the cinema. When organizers of Glasgow Film Festival decided to put The Painted Bird in this year’s programme, I could not miss the chance to watch it. Did I manage to stay in my seat until the final credits?

Just in case you have never come across the Kosiński’s famous book, The Painted Bird is about a young Jewish boy who is seeking refuge during the Second World War in the Eastern European countryside. However, instead of security he encounters here only cruelty, hatred and prejudice of the local people. An innocent child is wandering from one traumatic experience to another one. When the boy’s painful journey eventually brings him back to his parents, he is unable to get on with normal life…

Yes, the Painted Bird is a naturalistic war story with some very revolting moments that could be for some sensitive members of the audience too brutal. It is nevertheless not much worse than most of the movies that are dealing with Holocaust or similar topic. Lot of violent content is happening off-screen and filmmakers even skipped or moderated some of the most gruesome parts of the novel. Otherwise they accurately follow the Kosiński’s narrative (so the fans of the book should be mostly pleased). What actually sparks controversy is the fact that story does not portray the Nazis as the prime evil and everyone else as good guys, which is typical for most of the films about the Second World War. The Painted Bird goes different way. The main hero meets on his path good people, bad people and complete monsters, regardless of their nationality or political ideology. Kosiński’s (and Marhoul’s) message is that in the times of war and crisis even common folks do horrible things to each other and anyone can become a villain.

The atmosphere of the Eastern European villages is perfectly depressing. You can feel the protagonist’s pain and misery. Imaginative camera takes, not many dialogues and superb actors (especially the only 12-year old Petr Kotlár in the title role). That all makes Václav Marhoul’s flick an exceptional cultural event of the year. Given the fact that such large and bold films are quite rare in the Czech cinematography, I have to give the author the full credit.


The Czech director managed to craft a splendid and accurate movie adaptation of Jerzy Kosiński’s disturbing novel. Although it definitely contains some disgusting sequences of graphic violence on the verge of splatter film (for example, the eyes-poking scene), I found more disheartening the parts that remain unsaid (the horror shown on the face of a child). Under the rough surface it is also a skilfully designed depiction of war and human cruelty that will resonate inside you for a very long time.


The Painted Bird screened as part of the Window on The World Strand of the festival. Other films in this strand can be found here