When your film becomes a byword for “a plunge into the darkest corners of the human soul”, you know something’s gone wrong. Very, very wrong. So wrong, in fact, that over 40 of your elite festival glitterati walk right out of your screening.
Critics at Toronto International Film Festival yesterday felt so repulsed that they staged a mass walkout from Holocaust drama The Painted Bird. Václav Marhoul’s film also prompted walkouts at Venice earlier this month, so spectators had some warning of what was to come. But the violent adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s eponymous novel proved too overwhelming for the crowd.
Marhoul is known for a number of English and Czech titles, and his black-and-white feature The Painted Bird is a film documenting the horrors of the Holocaust from the perspective of an unnamed young boy, a Polish Jew (played by newcomer Petr Kotlar). The film had a noteworthy lineup including Stellan Skarsgard and Harvey Keitel, but even on its release the novel was criticised for its portrayal of horrific events enacted by Polish peasants, not Nazis.
The controversial billing was enough to cause 40 of the guests at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox to leave the theater, despite festival organiser TIFF programmer Dorota Lech urging the crowd to stay until the end. “It is sometimes very difficult to watch atrocities onscreen, but it is very important to bear witness,” Lech said. From the off the film proved controversial, as the balcony was closed and many ground-floor seats remained empty. But even for those present it proved too much.
Usually the festival circuit is a good way of sounding off on critics’ and other filmmakers’ ideas, testing the waters to see if your material lands — but in this case, Václav has misread the situation. Any fundamental understanding of the Holocaust is enough to begin to understand what kind of material Václav ventured on with his latest film. We’ve studied history. We’ve seen Schindler’s List. We’ve even seen a successful bittersweet comedy on the same subject via Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful.
But it’s common sense not to venture into territory that could shock your audiences to the point of disgust. Even early reviews of Taika Waititi’s anticipated Jojo Rabbit have shown that the film is divisive, indicating that maybe there isn’t really a place for Holocaust drama, even on the festival circuit.
I’m not going to suggest that has Václav has ruined his career: for one, that sort of hyperbole doesn’t belong on this site, and for another, filmmakers have tried and missed the mark many times, and genuine failure is all part of the process. But while it’s normal to expect some kind of controversy at one of the high-profile festivals this season, I’d have thought filmmakers would read the room and steer clear of topics that remain still too sensitive to film in depth.