'The Painter and the Thief': Doc Spotlights Unlikely Friendship Between an Artist and the Robber Who Stole From Her

Gunda - Still 1 - Publicity-H 2021
Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Artist Barbora Kysilkova forms a bond with Karl-Bertil Nordland in 'The Painter and the Thief.'

Filmmaker Benjamin Ree set out to make a film about a painter who meets the man who swiped two of her paintings, but the documentarian soon realized he needed to follow his movie's fascinating subjects for three years, through life and near death.

As hooks go, The Painter and the Thief has a great one: The Oscar-shortlisted documentary, by 31-year-old Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree, follows a friendship between a Czech painter and the tattooed gangster who stole two of her most valuable works from an Oslo art gallery. What begins as a caper with a twist, however, soon reveals itself to be a much deeper rumination on things like friendship, self-destructiveness and the artistic impulse.

"I read about the robbery from newspapers in Norway," explains Ree via a Zoom call from his home in Oslo, where he's seated beside a sun-mimicking lamp. (Winter nights in Norway are 18 hours long.) Ree introduced himself to the artist, Barbora Kysilkova, who'd recently moved to Oslo, and convinced her to let him start following her for what he thought would be a short film.

What he didn't know was that Kysilkova, 38, had introduced herself to the thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland, 41, at a court appearance; what's more, she captured audio of their first encounter. In the conversation, Nordland claims to have no memory as to what became of her missing paintings, having committed the crime in a drug-induced stupor. He took them, he tells her, "because they were beautiful." Naturally drawn to dark subjects, Kysilkova asks if Nordland would consider posing for her. He very apprehensively agrees.

After several sessions, Nordland begins to let his guard down and eventually allows Ree to film them. And so the camera was there to capture the moment Nordland's portrait — a photorealistic painting of him dipping his fingers into a wine glass — is unveiled to him, resulting in a shattering emotional response. "Seeing his reaction was just beyond anything we could have hoped for or predicted," says Ree. "We then decided we needed to follow these people for many years."

In the end, Ree would follow his two subjects for three years, from 2015 through 2017, during which their stories would take more twists than a scripted drama. Eight months into the shoot, Nordland, sickly thin and consumed by a debilitating heroin addiction, gets into a near-fatal car wreck. "I was devastated and shocked," Ree remembers. "We did not know if he would live or die. He broke 16 bones in his body and his spleen broke up. It was just pure luck that he survived that accident."

Still, the accident left Nordland semi-paralyzed and in severe pain. Realizing his star might not make it, Ree and Nordland had a difficult conversation. "I told him, 'If you die, we're not going to make the film,' " Ree recalls. "And then his response was, 'If I die, you have to promise to make the film.' "

Nordland did survive, and, during a stint behind bars for driving under the influence, he sobered up, recovered full use of his limbs and began bulking up in the prison gym. By the time he was released, he was healthy and committed to getting his life back on track. In the film, he tells his father he plans on starting a family and enrolling in nursing school. Nordland since has gotten a bachelor's degree in sports medicine and now works in a physical rehabilitation center. (The family has not yet happened.)

No one is more amazed at that transformation than Ree. "I could never imagine that he would get back on his feet again," he says. "His journey in the film is the most impressive thing I've ever experienced in my life. I think he at last feels that he's worthy of love and that he can stand tall." Nordland now enjoys a taste of celebrity — albeit Norway-style. "Thirty thousand people saw the film before the cinemas closed down, which is very good for a documentary," says Ree. "He's doing a lot of interviews."

The success of The Painter and the Thief — which premiered to acclaim at Sundance in 2020 and was acquired for distribution by Neon — also has benefited Kysilkova, who in the film breaks down over her financial struggles. "After the film, Barbora sold a lot of paintings and drawings to the U.S. market," notes Ree. "So she's doing good. I think both of them are doing really good, considering."

This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.