The Painter and the Thief (2020)
Director: Benjamin Ree
Starring: Karl Bertil-Norland, Barbora Kyslikova
“The art of life and life on art” – The Painter and The Thief shows both of these things in their rawest form. From the struggles of addiction to the power of friendship, this documentary from Benjamin Ree follows Barbora Kyslikova, an artist originally from Berlin, as she discovers two of her paintings have been stolen by mindless criminals.
Courtroom sketches provide the visual backdrop to an early conversation between Kyslikova and one of the men identified as stealing her work, Karl Bertil-Norland. Bertil, as he is commonly known, is standing trial for the theft of the German-born artist’s work but claims to have no recollection of where the two paintings (amounting to 20,000€ collectively) ended up. It’s the type of documentary opening that prompts an association with the artist, thus ramping up your anxiety and making for a powerful and meaningful start to to the film; one that from there on out plays on your expectations and prejudice to present something altogether more surprising.
After serving his time in the state jail, Bertil is released, the documentary picking up on Barbora’s intention to meet with him once again. The artist invites the criminal to her apartment where, with his permission, she paints his portrait. As the documentary proceeds we learn more and more about the two pivotal characters, from Bertil’s drug abuse and toxic past to Barbora’s abusive ex-partner and financial struggles. The general concept of the storytelling shows the dramatic transformation of both characters, as one grows from rock bottom to good health and the other declines due to complications in her life.
In a moving scene filmed some weeks after Kyslikova’s portrait of Bertil, the pair reconvene to unveil the art piece in what is one of the shining moments of the film. Here, we see a sad, pained, tired version of Bertil, a version he has clearly never seen of himself until now, and he is taken aback, leading him to an emotional breakdown. As he ironically sports a t-shirt reading “You are stronger than you think”, we are forced to feel the humanity, to understand his plight, to grow empathy and an association with this man the same way as the artist does.
Norwegian documentarian Benjamin Lee brings this story to life in a vivid and somewhat poetic manner. As proven by his critically acclaimed 2016 film Magnus, Lee has a skill of turning everyday stories into characteristic films thanks to his clear interest in the lives of his subjects, and The Painter and the Thief lives up to this same image with its clever shift of focus from Barbora’s perspective of the tragic robbery to looking at the same story through the eyes of Bertil and his road to recovery, shifting our emotional anchor point as he does so, encouraging a more accepting way of thinking.
The Painter and the Thief is a moving and ultimately thoroughly enjoyable exploration of what life can throw at people and how we learn to deal with struggles through the help of the people around us. There were moments where the pacing fell a bit flat and the focus of the documentary seemed misplaced, but Lee and his team managed to hold things together with a generally thought provoking film filled with likeable characters and engaging moral themes.