The Importance of Sitting Through “Unwatchable” Movies

Holocaust drama “The Painted Bird” joins a long tradition of films that make us reckon with human suffering

July 17, 2020 11:26 am
the painted bird unwatchable movies
"The Painted Bird" was met with mass walkouts when it premiered in Venice and Toronto last year
IFC Films

This Friday, the feel-bad movie experience of the year comes online. The Painted Bird, Václav Marhoul’s adaptation of the infamous Polish novel about one wayward child’s picaresque nightmare roaming the countryside during the Holocaust, inspired mass walkouts when it premiered at the film festivals in Venice and Toronto last fall. Among the myriad horrors witnessed by the unnamed boy during the film’s nearly three hours: suicides, rapes, two counts of pedophilia, mutilation of both the eyeball and genitals, and bloody pecking of the scalp-flesh by crows. Marhoul opens on the boy dashing through a forest with menacing figures in a contextless pursuit, his beloved white ferret clutched in his arms. They catch up to him and set his pet on fire, which emits an unholy scream of agony as it races, burning alive, in circles. The moment is terrible, and beautiful, and only the first of five species that will be subject to animal cruelty before the film ends. 

Even before a global pandemic and nationwide political upheaval had ground America’s morale to a nub, The Painted Bird was what industry types would term a “tough sell.” I’ve spoken with a goodly number of fellow critics who plan on letting this one pass them by, and if the people specifically dedicated to intrepid and curious viewing aren’t biting, then we may safely extrapolate that an even slimmer slice of the general public will engage with the film. Not that I blame any of them: it’s a punishing way to spend a lot of time during a period when most people are looking for something to buoy their day. And yet to the most crucial question is whether this could all possibly be worth the personal toll it demands, and to that, the answer is a resounding “yes.” The Painted Bird, in all its excruciating glory, mounts the most persuasive argument in some time for the utility and vital importance of “unwatchable” films. As the gym-rat adage goes: no pain, no gain.

While the word “unwatchable” gets thrown around a lot as an all-purpose pejorative, applied to the heinously bad and the contemptibly forgettable alike, the term can also serve a more particular political and critical function. To wrestle with the unwatchable is to aspire to a higher purpose than misery for its own sake, a class of art distinct from such happy slogs in the muck of degradation as, say, The Human Centipede. That falls squarely into the category of exploitation cinema, so named for its core motivation of capitalizing on the trend du jour, or more frequently, on the most lurid material theaters will allow. Something in the vein of Cannibal Holocaust accepts shock value as its raison d’etre rather than a means to an end, and though the unsimulated gore can be hard to watch (that, and director Ruggero Deodato did attempt a self-aware commentary on the exploitation genre), it’s not quite in the realm of the unwatchable. 

That quality covers the films spelunking into the most traumatizing crevasses of human tribulation in search of truth, hope, meaning or some similarly precious commodity of the soul. The Painted Bird draws its strongest influence from Elem Klimov’s 1985 film Come and See, another portrait of a boy navigating the inhumanities of World War II. As one could fairly expect, most serious-minded Holocaust pictures qualify, but carrying the weight of history isn’t a necessity. Think of the metaphorical debasements of Antichrist and Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom; the ol’ ultraviolence of A Clockwork Orange; the chillingly plausible mass murder of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Some will go to bat for the films of the mini-movement termed New French Extremity, comprising transgressive pictures conceived to challenge taboos (like Gaspar Noé’s notorious Irréversible, which unsparingly depicts the brutal violation of Monica Bellucci over several real-time minutes).

Naturally, there’s plenty of room for case-by-case debate on whether a film daring to tangle with such heavy content crosses the line into exploitation, with critics always on the lookout for films passing off garden-variety sadism as profundity. The great French cineaste Jacques Rivette famously denounced the 1960 Holocaust picture Kapò in the esteemed pages of the journal Cahiers du Cinéma, singling out one tracking shot tightening up on a electrocuted woman’s unmoving body as betraying a perverse fascination with her death. As recently as 2015, a fuss to this effect was raised over Son of Saul, another critical darling charged by some with aestheticizing the Holocaust. The Painted Bird, which has already inspired some responses to that effect, reignites the debate. Why spend our hard-earned money and finite time on this Earth on something that will almost definitely make us unhappy?

Put simply, a film such as this exists to acquaint us with the value of suffering. The most exquisitely awful moments in the boy’s journey can create a vicarious pain of sympathy, a somatic response to art every bit as valid and useful as the laughter generated by comedy or the screams of fright triggered by horror. At the height of their powers, movies can make us feel things about moving light on a wall, and there’s no feeling more potent than distress and its attendant relief. The Greeks talked about the importance of catharsis in tragedy, that after watching a series of bad things happen to someone else, we feel awash with renewed gratitude that the hardships were not our own. The same holds true in the auditoriums of today. Any sane person will find themselves thinking, “Stop the ride, I want to get off,” at least a few times during Marhoul’s barrage of misfortunes. That the film keeps happening even when we wish it wouldn’t faintly approximates the helplessness our boy feels, a safe and culturally sanctioned taste of torment. 

And yet the paragraph above would seem to suggest something closer to a must-watch than the unwatchable. One of the most-clicked-upon listicles ever run at the A.V. Club was headlined “24 Great Films Too Painful to Watch Twice”; when it was published, writer Scott Tobias noted that plenty of the staffers had seen many of the entries multiple times. The films enumerated are not unwatchable in the sense that they’re impossible to watch — sitting through a movie is not one of life’s more taxing tasks, gluteal strain notwithstanding — but that they afford and enforce the privilege of “unwatching.” Speaking personally, The Painted Bird made this critic do something I almost never do: look away. I willingly settled in for a 9 a.m. screening of a three-hour despondence parade to kick off last year’s coverage of the world’s most draining film festival, but I did avert my eyes when a glass bottle was used in a visceral and unspeakable manner. 

That moment illustrates the privilege of unwatching, a watching without watching, a way to spare ourselves where the characters can’t. Unwatching can take the form of looking away, of deciding to leave the theater, or of not buying a ticket at all. The unwatchable film compels us to exempt ourselves from suffering others had to endure, and leaves us with guilt. To unwatch is to take the easy way out, and an unwatchable film forces the viewer to confront the limits of what they can process. The gap between what the characters must withstand and the individual’s inability (or disinclination, whichever you prefer) to even watch it creates an impression of weakness by contrast, and from that, self-consciousness. It’s an unsettling stew of emotions, washed away by the salvation of the end credits. The viewer emerges back into the light of the outside world reborn, thankful to be alive and no longer trapped with that movie — to trade “unwatching” for “having watched.”

The Painted Bird concludes with a gesture of hard-won humanity, as the anonymous boy traces his name of Joska in the fog on the window of the train taking him to freedom. Seconds earlier, he softens his resentment for the parents with whom he’s just reunited, forgiving them for sending him away after noticing the numbers tattooed on their arms. Perhaps he’s forgiving us for turning a blind eye out of our own preservation. In a film primarily defined by its pitilessness, Marhoul’s final mercy stroke lands like a crushing blow, due in part to our connection to it. Indomitable young Joska gets a far more intense version of our same reprieve, released from the bonds of his anguish just as we’re released from the grip of the abject onscreen. The film doesn’t just exemplify the unwatchable; Marhoul grinds its worth into his captive audience until they’re completely broken down. Only then can they be built back up again.

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