Art & Culture

The Painted Bird’s Václav Marhoul

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The Painted Bird director on being a filmmaker under Communism, campaigning for an Oscar and why his latest film sparked so much controversy

At the time of this interview, Václav Marhoul was on his way to the Warsaw Film Festival to introduce his controversial movie The Painted Bird. After Warsaw, it’s on to Los Angeles, then Chicago.

“Every night I am sleeping in a different hotel, but I’m not complaining,” he says.

The Painted Bird, which was sold to the United States’ IFC Films in late September, has been selected by the Czech Republic as its submission to the 92nd Academy Awards in the best international feature film category. Until it is officially nominated by the Academy, Marhoul will be busy campaigning for it at several international film festivals throughout the globe.

“It’s a privilege because you’re not just representing your film, you’re representing the Czech Republic,” he says. For many, the country’s selection doesn’t come as a surprise.

“This film is so different,” Marhoul says. “This kind of movie hasn’t been made in the Czech Republic for maybe 30 or 40 years.”

The Painted Bird depicts a savage and brutal landscape during WWII as a young Jewish boy seeks safe haven somewhere in Eastern Europe after his guardian unexpectedly dies. Shot in stunning black and white and starring Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel and Petr Kotlár as the boy Joska, the film was adapted from Polish writer Jerzy Kosiński’s novel of the same name.

While it would be easy to categorize The Painted Bird as another war or Holocaust movie, the filmmakers and actors caution against this. In an interview with Haaretz, Skarsgård described it as more of an existential movie about Europe during a very dark time. Marhoul himself says it’s about humanity and the importance of certain principles best illustrated when those principles are absent.

“[When reading the book] many questions come to you but no answers,” Marhoul says. “You have to find out the answers by yourself.”

The film’s universal nature is also illustrated by its use of language. Although not heavy in dialogue, when the movie’s characters do speak they use the fictitious interslavic, a first in film history. Marhoul did this so as not to associate any one Eastern European country with the violence depicted in the film.

The Painted Bird is not the first time Marhoul looked to literature for cinematic inspiration. His 2003 film Mazaný Filip was based on a Raymond Chandler book and 2008’s Tobruk about Czech soldiers in North Africa was inspired by Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Although Marhoul has had an extensive career in film, these three movies are the only ones he’s directed.

The 59-year-old director’s love of cinema can be traced back to age 14, when he first knew he wanted to become a filmmaker. “I loved all movies,” he says. “I loved Westerns. I loved dramas. I loved psychological movies. I loved thrillers. It doesn’t matter. There’s just one condition, it must be really good.”

After secondary school, he attended the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) and from there worked as a production manager at various studios, including Czechoslovak Television and Barrandov Studios.

Before 1989 when the state acted as the main producer of cinema, Marhoul found it difficult to work on films that adhered to the Communist ideology. During this time, cinema was often used as a propaganda tool by the government. Instead, he preferred to work as a freelancer on independent films.

That changed after the Velvet Revolution–a movement Marhoul, as a close friend of Vaclav Havel, was deeply involved in. In 1990, he took the reigns of Barrandov Studios and continued as its head until 1997 when he founded his own production company called Silver Screen.

“I directed my first movie at age 43,” he says. “Never did I have the ambition to be a director or a screenwriter. It’s a step on the stairs of my life that I’ve just recently stepped on.”

Although new to directing, Marhoul’s choices in The Painted Bird have achieved him international praise. If the film is accepted by the Academy, it will be the first Czech film to be nominated since Želary in 2003.

The film has also sparked some controversy. It debuted at the Venice Film Festival, where more than 1000 people attended each screening. While most of the audience members stayed and gave the film a nearly 10-minute standing ovation, the violence caused a few to walkout before the end, which became the main media headline.

“I absolutely did not understand what happened in Venice,” Marhoul says, especially when looking at other festival favorites like Joker, which is known for its violence.

“In my opinion, there is a deal between audience and filmmakers,” he says. “You [the filmmaker] can do whatever you want but it mustn’t be true. The Painted Bird is a truthful film. Not a fairy tale. In this way, I broke the deal between the audience and the filmmakers. And the truth is always painful.”

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