The Holocaust is, without a doubt, the toughest topic to discuss in modern history. The mass murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime during World War Two was a defining moment in the history of mankind: an unspeakable, indescribable, almost unfathomable event that, 75 years on, is still just as brutal and unbelievably painful an area to consider.

When it comes to depicting the Holocaust on film, it doesn’t get any easier. Undoubtedly the most famous film on the subject is Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, hailed by many as one of the greatest films of all time, but it has also provoked a significant amount of controversy and criticisms surrounding its approach to such a thorny and seemingly impenetrable topic. 

While Spielberg’s film achieved mainstream success and went on to win seven Academy Awards, it was also identified by some as part of a growing tendency to “Americanise” the Holocaust. As James Young writes, “an American nationalist perspective inevitably wants to call attention to the great distance between itself and the Shoah [the Hebrew term for the Holocaust],” and Young and others saw American depictions of the period (including Schindler’s List) as attempts to gradually distance the viewer from the Holocaust, thus relieving them of any moral or ethical concerns and stripping the film of any lessons for the future. 

Schindlers List (1)

Courtesy of: Universal Pictures

In particular, Spielberg’s film was accused by historians Geoff Eley and Atina Grossmann of “overpersonalising” the Nazi killing machine through an unnecessary focus on camp commander Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) and the saviour storyline that allowed us to keep a comfortable separation from the horror of the camps. There are a number of other more recent films that could also fit into this uncomfortable category, the most egregious example being The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas with its grossly misjudged attempts to shift our sympathies away from the struggling Jewish child and towards the family in charge of running the concentration camp.

The Painted Bird is a film that definitely cannot be accused of shying away from the horrors of the Nazi regime. Directed by Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul and adapted from a 1965 novel by the Polish-American author Jerzy Kosiński, this three-hour saga of abuse and trauma is a wholly Eastern European affair and a clear antidote to clean, Americanised depictions of the period. Following the story of a young boy venturing through a stark, ungoverned land, the novel was long considered unfilmable due to, as Jerzy Jarniewicz sees it, its “bipolar” nature, “in which history is interlocked with imagination, fact with fiction, autobiography with myth.”

The Painted Bird (2)

Courtesy of: Celluloid Dreams

Both the film and the novel lack specific references to the Holocaust, instead using a series of horrific events that hold heavy connotations towards the Nazi killing machine, with many of the violent acts involving burning (the word Holocaust effectively means “mass destruction by fire”). The opening act of the film sees our protagonist (played with a fierce resilience by the young Petr Kotlár) witnessing a series of horrific events. His pet weasel is burnt alive, his aunt suddenly dies, he is tortured by the peasants of a nearby village and taken in by an abusive witch doctor. This series of appalling events is shot in a tight, unflinching style, forcing us to witness every abusive act in close-up, inescapable focus, using monochrome that fits the bleak subject matter. 

It is a defiant break from the almost aestheticised, disturbingly clean-cut depictions of the Holocaust that proliferated as the 20th century drew to a close – a sharp shift away from Fiennes’ problematically glamorous Nazi commander or the absurd humour of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. But aside from being made as a response to these flawed representations of the Holocaust, Marhoul’s decision to adapt this story was also triggered by concerns around the humanitarian issues occurring within the world today. In an interview with the Guardian, he spoke of how “it’s easy to manipulate people with their fears… This is one of the principles of The Painted Bird. Always, you have a problem if you are different,” and we see this occur multiple times within the film, the villagers seizing upon the boy out of a clear racial anger, their blind rage terrifying to witness.

Son Of Saul 2015 004 Two Men Close Stare ORIGINAL (1)

Courtesy of: Curzon Artificial Eye

There is another recent Eastern European film that should also factor greatly in any discussion on Holocaust filmmaking. László Nemes’ Son of Saul won the Academy Award for Best International Feature in 2016 for its stunning portrait of a Sonderkommando worker (Géza Röhrig) attempting to carry out a proper Jewish burial for a young boy. Adapted from the stories of real Sonderkommando members (Jews who had to oversee the mass-extermination program at the concentration camps, before being murdered themselves), Nemes’ film, like Marhoul’s, thrusts us right into the centre of the nightmare – the camera clinging to Saul’s body as he struggles through the suffering of Auschwitz. Peripheral vision plays a hugely important role here, as the 1.375:1 aspect ratio allows us brief snapshots of the never-ending horror that surrounds Saul, containing us within his field of vision (a feeling maximised by the decision to shoot handheld).

Like The Painted Bird, Nemes’ debut feature is an extremely tough, provocative watch, and one that serves as another sharp rebuttal to previous failings in Holocaust representation. There is little hope in these stories, little room for humanity; both films communicate the relentless brutality of the Nazi regime. But where the two films differ is in their overall impact. Son of Saul masterfully exercises the old motto “less is more” while The Painted Bird ultimately wastes its full-blooded depiction of evil on increasingly excessive and unnecessary sequences of violence and rape that – as they grow more frequent – lose their power and become uncomfortably tedious.

SUM16 SonOfSaul (1)

Courtesy of: Curzon Artificial Eye

It is clear that this focus on repetition, on an endless cycle of violence that shows little sign of abating, is the point of both Kosiński’s novel and Marhoul’s film, the playwright Arthur Miller once telling Kosiński in a letter that “you have made the normality of it all apparent.” The string of monstrous characters and torturous acts that the child endures can be clearly seen as symbolic of the horrifically banal view of death and torture that was common within the Nazi regime – the villagers that taunt and hunt the boy conjuring images of Nazi soldiers patrolling the concentration camps. 

But this cycle of abuse, though initially effective in its symbolic power, rapidly becomes excessive and exploitative in an apparent attempt to shock and irritate the audience. The film had already roused an infamous reputation before its release through mass walkouts at the Toronto, Venice, and London film festivals late last year, and though the debate around ditching a film before the end remains a sticky one, these stories are far from surprising.

Download (1)

Courtesy of: Celluloid Dreams

One scene that occurs roughly half an hour in is a particularly excessive exercise in pseudo-torture porn. Udo Kier’s Miller attacks his wife’s lover, charging him into a wall and using a spoon to gouge out his eyes, which their cat begins to eat. It’s an outrageously excessive display of sadomasochistic violence that is shot with unnecessary focus on the cat and the lover’s blighted face.

Scenes like this are so preposterous and exaggerated that they cause the film to often lose its way and leaves us more often than not feeling simply disgusted and tired. They undermine the provocative impact – something that should make us sit up and feel anger, perhaps an intense sadness. Instead, more often than not, The Painted Bird is simply an exercise in seeing just how far the boundaries can be pushed.

It’s a stark contrast to Son of Saul‘s masterful use of implication. As Nemes said upon the film’s release back in 2015, “I think less is more and the right way was to rely on the imagination of viewers to reconstruct something that cannot be reconstructed. For them to create in the mind the experience of the extermination camp.” Sound design is vital to these all-encompassing, but often unseen, horrors, the barks of Nazi officers and the screams of Jewish suffering providing a hellish soundtrack to Saul’s struggle.

Son Of Saul (1)

Courtesy of: Curzon Artificial Eye

Röhrig is brilliant too at drawing out Saul’s resilient, but deeply damaged, nature in a minimal but quietly explosive way. By immersing us in Saul’s view of the concentration camp, and giving us chaotic snapshots of the carnage, Son of Saul excels in a way that The Painted Bird never quite manages – the implied suffering having a much deeper, and haunting, impact on the viewer. As Röhrig says, “it makes that experience much harder because it is left to your imagination. You are going to carry the blow yourself in a very personal way.”

For all The Painted Bird’s flaws though, it is hard to deny its importance in today’s world. With the rise of far-right ideology, such as the growing strength of the Holocaust-denying AfD party  as well as the increasing distance that grows between us and the events of World War Two – it is now more vital than ever for us to be reminded of the horrors of the Nazi system and the scale of the suffering its victims endured.