The Painted Bird


If you thought Bergman was bleak…

(2019) Drama (IFC) Petr Kotlár, Nina Shunevych, All Sokolova, Stanislav Bilyi, Barry Pepper, Zdenek Pecha, Harvey Keitel, Udo Kier, Lech Dyblik, Jitka Cvancarová, Julian Sands, Marika Procházková, Marie Stripkova, Milan Simácek, Martin Naholká, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominik Weber, Per Jenista, Irena Måchovå. Directed by Václav Marhoul

 

Some films are made for their times; others seem to exist in no specific time period whatsoever. Then there are movies that are a product of their times and reflect a mindset or an aspect of an era. Given the times that we live in, seeing a movie like this one might not necessarily be something you’ll want to put yourself through – it’s brilliant, but brutal.

During World War II, a young Jewish Boy (Kotlár) – who is never named in the film – is sent to live in the countryside of an unnamed Eastern European country (in the press material, she is referred to as his aunt). She tries to keep him in their isolated farmhouse, but every time he ventures out village boys torment him and in a memorable scene, set fire to his pet mink which runs around, screaming as it is immolated. This is in the first five minutes of the film.

Shortly thereafter, the Boy discovers that his protector has died during the night. Startled by the sight of her corpse, he accidentally sets fire to the farmhouse and burns it to the ground. On his own now with nobody to protect him in an increasingly chaotic and desperate landscape, he meets a variety of people – some kind, some cruel – and witnesses an assortment of disturbing and venal acts, including but not limited to child abuse, spousal abuse, lynching, bestiality, rape, torture and anti-Semitism.

All of this serves to create a shell around the boy’s soul as he tries to survive the horrors he has witnessed, all the while searching for his family. But if he is to find them, will he return to them the same boy as he was when he left? Don’t count on it.

The film is based on Polish author Jerzy Kosinsky’s (Being There) first novel which became controversial when he claimed it was autobiographical, but it turned out to be not the case. Shot in lush, glorious, black and white, the cinematography helps the film feel timeless – the small, rural villages seem to be as much a part of the 15th century as they do the 20th, with superstitious villagers committing acts so barbarous that they can almost never be forgiven. That such things actually happened is almost of no consequence because the filmmakers give us almost no context on which to bolster the film, leaving us to feel like we just had a bath in raw sewage.

That’s not to say that every moment in this film is unredeemable – there are some characters in the film who aren’t out to rape and murder the Boy, such as a kind-hearted but misguided priest (Keitel), a gruff Russian sniper (Pepper) and a good-at-heart German soldier (Skarsgård) who spares the Boy after being ordered to kill him. Such moments, though, are few and decidedly far-between.

At just a touch under three hours long, this is a marathon and not a sprint. An early scene in which a jealous miller gouges out the eyes of a man who he thought was staring at his wife with the intention of fornicating with her (followed by the inevitable beating of said wife by the eye-gouging miller) which the miller’s cats then feasted on inspired literally dozens of patrons seeing the movie at its debut at the Venice Film Festival last year to walk out, or attempt to with increasing levels of desperation (less than half the original audience was left when the lights came back up).

There is some definite talent here and even if Marhoul attempts to stave off criticism by stating that he’s less interested in the truthfulness of the film’s subject matter but rather in the truths of human nature that they reveal. That’s the cop-out response of someone who believes his art (and therefore himself) are Above It All. Nyet to that, comrade.

This isn’t an easy watch and certainly those who are sensitive or squeamish should stay the hell away from this thing. There are some truths revealed here that remind us that we are not so far removed from being these Luddite villagers who feel it is their religious duty to execute the unholy among them, even if they are innocent children. The kind of ignorance and madness on display here seems eerily familiar – and disturbingly current.

REASONS TO SEE: Black and white photography makes the film timeless. Bears some warning in this ear of rampant nationalism.
REASONS TO AVOID: Unrelentingly bleak and brutal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence (much of it graphic), animal cruelty, disturbing images and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The language spoken in the film is not an actual language, but an amalgam of various Slavic languages and dialects. Marhoul didn’t want the film location associated with a specific nation, so he put together a fictional language in order to leave vague where the action takes place. In the original novel, the film takes place in Poland.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Europa Europa
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
We Are the Radical Monarchs

Valkyrie


Valkyrie

Tom Cruise wonders why he didn't get a part in the next Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

(United Artists) Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Thomas Kretschmann, Eddie Izzard, Terrence Stamp, Christian Berkel, David Bamber. Directed by Bryan Singer

When the state becomes toxic to its people and amoral in its actions, it is the responsibility of good men to rise up and resist. Those actions may take the form of protest or, in extreme instances, of action – deadly action with deadly consequences.

Perhaps no society had ever become more amoral than that of Nazi Germany, and although sometimes we forget, there were plenty of Germans who resisted the Nazis and worked to bring down their diseased regime.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Cruise) was one aristocratic Prussian who was becoming more and more concerned over the direction that Hitler was taking. Certainly Hitler was proving himself to be no master tactician; he was needlessly sacrificing men and material that, von Stauffenberg thought, would be needed for the defense of Germany when the Allies invaded. Von Stauffenberg, a handsome aesthetic young man, would be cruelly injured in battle, losing an eye, a hand and two fingers off the other hand.

There were others who thought as von Stauffenberg did as well, including Major General Henning von Tresckow (Branagh), General Friedrich Olbricht (Nighy) and Ludwig Beck (Stamp), a politician. In fact, these men were convinced that in order to save Germany, Hitler had to die. After an aborted attempt to kill Hitler goes wrong, the remaining conspirators decide to bring von Stauffenberg into the fold.

At first he’s reluctant to join the fold. The cabal doesn’t really have an exit plan, nor do they seem well-organized to the well-organized von Stauffenberg. However, von Stauffenberg has an idea. It involves Operation Valkyrie, a plan Hitler has in place to keep the government intact in the event that the Nazi leadership is killed or incapacitated. Von Stauffenberg can use that plan against the Nazis by assassinating Hitler with a bomb at the Wolf’s Den, his heavily armored stronghold where his military staff meets to plan the war, then claiming the SS was responsible for the deed.

It’s a bold move, but it will need a lot of moving parts, not the least of which is getting General Friedrich Fromm (Wilkinson), head of the reserves, on board and Fromm is a political opportunist who doesn’t care about ideology so much as he does about power – his own. If the plan succeeds, it will save hundreds of thousands of lives and change the face of the war forever.

Of course, most people know that Hitler wasn’t assassinated by his own people – he took his own life. Students of history familiar with the plot know that it failed due to a relatively simple factor – the briefcase bomb was moved inadvertently by an adjutant so that he could stretch his legs, putting a thick block of wood between Hitler and the bomb.

However, unless you’ve got a rabid passion for World War II, chances are you aren’t going to know many details about the plot. Director Singer, best known for his X-Men movies, has meticulously recreated wartime Germany, and has at least tried to film at actual locations whenever possible, although his star’s Scientology beliefs made that task difficult as the German government was at first reluctant to grant the crew access to these locations because they consider Scientology a cult. While I don’t necessarily disagree with them, I do think that it was a bit ludicrous of them to kick up such a fuss over the beliefs of a single actor. That’s just me though.

I did like the historical detail to the piece; it’s one of the best aspects of the movie. However, there are some problems here, some of them not the fault of the filmmakers. For one, the real von Stauffenberg was a very cultured, somewhat reserved man who held himself with military bearing. By our standards he was somewhat aloof, and that aspect of his personality seems to be the one Cruise honed in on. There’s a bit of a disconnect between the audience and the character; it makes it difficult to really get into von Stauffenberg’s head. However, Cruise looks uncannily like von Stauffenberg as shown in the comparison photo below:

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (left), Tom Cruise (right)

Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, a long time associate of Singer, takes a more observational tactic to the script. He gives us the events and many of the facts, but little of the character behind the men who were involved. We have to take it for granted that they were more concerned with the potential destruction of Germany than they were about the Final Solution, which they may or may not have known about. We won’t get any insight that way from this movie.

The supporting cast, mainly of veteran British character actors, is sterling. Nighy as the somewhat indecisive Olbricht is particularly outstanding, although it is Wilkinson as the conniving Fromm who delivers the best performance. He is a conniving rat who follows whichever direction the wind is blowing, but even so when Wilkinson’s onscreen you can’t take your eyes off of him.

This isn’t a bad film, it’s a pretty good film as a matter of fact but unfortunately it never got much attention during the glut of releases Christmas 2008 when it hit theaters. That’s a shame, because this is a decent suspense movie with the added attraction that it actually happened, pretty much as seen in the film.

WHY RENT THIS: The historical accuracy is a bit better than is usual for Hollywood films. Singer keeps the tension palpable even though most of us know how the events are going to conclude.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cruise is a little stiff as von Stauffenberg. The script seems more concerned with the events than those who took part in them.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, including some scenes that are sudden and shocking, and a smattering of bad language. Certainly most teens can handle this, as well as mature pre-teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Van Houten, who plays Nina von Stauffenberg, is the longtime companion of Sebastian Koch who played Claus von Stauffenberg in the TV production of “Operation Valkyrie.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A feature called “The Valkyrie Legacy” discusses the actual historical events, with interviews from descendents of the failed plotters as well as surviving co-conspirators. It also covers what happened after the events of the film. The Blu-Ray edition has the grandson of von Stauffenberg taking us on a tour of the actual Valkyrie locations.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: City of Ember