Rarely do I read about a movie before writing about it.
In fact, I peruse very little before even watching, for tabula-rasa reasons and such. But since I know that many — most? — people read to determine what to see, I pay attention to what arts-coverage reveals.
And when it comes to a movie like The Painted Bird, though I understand why a certain piece of context provides a sort of historical justification for this punishing story’s controversial raison d’être, being aware of it before taking your seat might be a disservice.
And now, I’m going to discuss this “plot point,” so skip the rest if The Painted Bird’s still in your queue.
While the Holocaust-backdrop grounds the seemingly-unimaginable gore in our “real” world, withholding on specifying this setting until the 90-minute mark unmoors the audience’s relationship to the barbarity they’re witnessing. When dealing with the world’s horrors, Nazis are the easiest way to explain such incomprehensible inhumanity.
In fact, before the time and place are clarified, I found myself locating the barbarity on display outside of our reality, as if actual humans could not possibly be responsible for such dehumanization. Of course such an assertion is self-evidently ahistorical, and one of The Painted Bird‘s primary modus operandi is to force us to stare for three hours at what we’d rather look away from.
But the movie obscures the exact particulars of the who, where, and when under an aesthetic reminiscent of a general dystopian nightmare-scape. Is this the apocalypse? A disturbed fantasy? And unless you’re an expert linguist trained in dialect detection, the Interslavic language spoken throughout — its first-ever use in a movie — bolsters the unrecognizable surreality.
Without any preconceived notions to aid identifiability, the audience must reconcile for themselves the basic facts of the depicted, reckoning with the connection(s) between the onscreen reality and our own. This quest for meaning beyond the capabilities of our everyday cognitive faculties mirrors the child’s lack of understanding in regards to the sociopolitical climate of the era; how could he make sense of the senseless and live through the unlivable at a juncture when “Nazis” were not widely synonymous with “nothing’s too evil for them”?
While the arrival of the swastika provides answers to some of these questions, anticipating its appearance somewhat spoils the punchline of the movie’s sustained, pitch-black “joke” setup. It’s a sick twist of fate, a cosmic irony of a cruel universe, that after 90 excruciating minutes, ONLY THEN do the big-baddies show up. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, who enters the scene but the platonic ideal of the most fucked-up villains in boogeymen history.
Sometimes, it feels like our creators — be they celestial deities or world-making filmmakers — are laughing at us and our misfortune. Are we humans nothing more than the butt of a joke to them?