LFF Review: The Painter and the Thief

Guy
3 min readOct 8, 2020

Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and The Thief is a fly on the wall documentary about the unlikely friendship between painter Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland who was behind the high profile theft of two of her paintings from a gallery. Through this framework the movie becomes not only a moving story but a challenge to the unforgiving and potentially one-sided nature of documentary storytelling.

The film opens with reports of the theft and immediately shifts to Barbora in the aftermath, firmly establishing her as our protagonist and as a victim, though to begin with this is all we know of her. The film, or perhaps Barbora withholds any other information about herself creating a sense of a space that needs to be filled, and very swiftly is. Barbora against all odds not only meets with Karl, the thief, but invites him into her home so she can paint him. This immediate boundary crossing suggests this is going to be a less than conventional story and leads to one of the film’s most powerful moments where Karl is presented with an enormous oil painting of himself and immediately begins to cry, both in awe of the piece and the simple fact that someone thought his image worth capturing.

This is the framework for the next chunk of the movie, we are introduced to Karl’s humanity through Barbora, she tells us about his life and his struggles and how they made him the man he is. It seems almost too easy for her to have such a clear idea of his life. And then, the film turns this on its head, reintroducing Karl as the narrator, telling us the things she doesn’t know about him, the things he knows about her and ultimately giving us a far more nuanced and in depth representation of his life than one person could ever provide. This decision transforms the film from a simple retelling of an event to a dialogue and hands over control of the narrative to the subject in a way that makes you wonder why it isn’t the standard. The Painter and the Thief uses this newfound freedom to approach what could have simply been a discrete moment in two lives as something ongoing and full of possibility. The missing painting becomes not only a symbol of their friendship’s inception but a shared goal and fascination, and eventually sets the stage for an incredibly satisfying conclusion that could not have happened if this was simply a film about the crime happening to Barbora. This structure reflects the intricacies of life and friendship with far more depth than if it expected us to pick sides with only half the story.

The choice to have the story told in such a way while the filmmakers themselves stay so intentionally out of the picture results in a genuinely touching and realistic reflection of the way friendships form and develop. Not only do we see their ideas of each other but we are introduced to the interlocking series of insecurities that make up their relationship and it leads to a genuinely cathartic experience as we watch them grow closer anyway.

It could be argued there is something intentionally dehumanising or objectifying about the documentary in its traditional form, that to turn a person into a subject is in itself an act of destruction, of everything that doesn’t fit the story a filmmaker wants to tell. I am not close enough to this story to know what never made the cut, but the decision to give both subjects control not only of the story but of their own representation feels like an infinitely more compassionate solution to the problem of reflecting an entire life on screen.

That early scene where Barbora paints Karl and the recurring motif of her creating art of him is not simply bait for a shot of tears or b-roll for some impersonal monologue, but the perfect encapsulation of the idea that art is at its most powerful when it is an act of collaboration between an artist and their subject.

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