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Filming has begun on an adaptation of Polish novelist Jerzy Kosinski’s controversial Holocaust story The Painted Bird, with Stellan Skarsgard joining the cast and another A-list Hollywood actor, Harvey Keitel, in talks to appear in the film.
Czech producer-director Vaclav Marhoul previously also lined up Udo Kier for the screen version of the story about a Jewish boy who wanders through Eastern Europe passing himself off as non-Jewish to avoid death at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.
Skarsgard tells The Hollywood Reporter that The Painted Bird was “a lovely book and a lovely screenplay.” The Swedish-born actor says he will play a German soldier in the film.
“You are probably familiar with the story — it follows a young boy and his encounters with a lot of different people, and I am one of them,” says Skarsgard.
The book, Kosinski’s first, was published in 1965, causing controversy and criticism for its unflinching portrayal of wartime horrors enacted not by the Nazis, but by Polish peasants.
Kosinski took the title from a rural tradition of catching birds, painting them in bright colors and then releasing them into the wild. The “painted birds” were never again accepted by their own families and were pecked to death, a fate the novelist uses as an analogy for the young boy.
Kosinski, who had moved to America in the late 1950s, is best known for his 1971 novel Being There, which was made into a 1979 film starring Peter Sellers.
Marhoul, who bought the screen rights to The Painted Bird in 2010, says Kosinski’s book “is a deeply dramatic story examining the immediate relationship between terror and cruelty on one side and innocence and love on the other. Although the novel itself has been perceived as highly controversial since its publication, it has won global recognition and several prestigious literary awards.”
Marhoul has secured letters of intent from both Skarsgard and Keitel, and attached Kier to play a character known simply as “the miller.”
Petr Kotlar, a 9-year-old Czech actor, will play the young Jewish boy. The cast also includes Polish, Ukrainian, Russia and Czech actors. Marhoul says he is still in talks with talent from Germany and Slovakia in addition to ongoing negotiations with Skarsgard and Keitel.
The novel, which depicts a dark world of violence and sadism, “captivated” him, according to the filmmaker. Marhoul has spent nine years in preparation and adapting the material for the screen. “There were moments when I became overwhelmed by the feeling that I can’t do this, that I bit off more than I can chew,” he says.
Marhoul believes that bringing The Painted Bird to the screen is timely, particularly when hate is on the rise again in Europe as countries struggle to absorb millions of migrants from conflict areas in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Principal photography on the $5 million project — a co-production between Marhoul’s Prague-based company Silver Screen, Czech public television and Czech, Slovak and Ukrainian producers — begins after two preliminary shooting days in Prague and on location in Ukraine.
The black-and-white film will be shot over 105 days. A world premiere is planned for May 2019, with the Czech cinematic release planned for September of that year.
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