Norwegian documentary “The Painter and the Thief” picked up the Special Jury Prize for Creative Storytelling from the Sundance Film Festival in January because the movie blends fact and an unfolding narrative drama in an unusually artful way. Neon picked up the film, which will, due to the pandemic, hit VOD and streaming platforms only on May 22.
When art-heist junkie Benjamin Ree, who is 30, embarked on his second nonfiction feature, Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova had already reached out to drug addict Karl-Bertil Nordland, who served 75 days in prison with an accomplice for stealing two of her prize paintings from Oslo’s Gallery Nobel in 2015. “I wonder if I could paint you?” she asked him.
Archive footage shows us the artist painting one of the stolen works as well as audio and drawings of her first courtroom approach to the thief. When she asks Nordland why he stole her work, he said, “Because it was beautiful.”
Ree started to shoot a 10-minute short in 2016 — until he witnessed the moment when the painter first showed Nordland her painting of him. “I came in early in the process of Barbora and Karl-Bertil getting to know each other,” Ree said in a phone interview. “She had a lot of questions about his tattoo — ‘snitchers are a dying breed’ — and I immediately saw Karl-Bertil and Barbora had chemistry. I didn’t know anything about where the story would end. I kept on filming. The crucial moment for me was when Karl-Bertil saw himself painted for the first time. That’s when I knew it was not going be a short-film documentary.”
That extraordinary moment could only unfold in a cinéma vérité film. The cinematographer Kristoffer Kumar holds on Nordland as waves of emotion cross his face. He is gobsmacked, his eyes riveted on the painting. He pushes Kysilkova away when she goes over to comfort him, then he walks up to his portrait, crying.
What did Ree see as the scene played out? “There are so many things going on at that moment,” he said. “The immediate thing is that Karl-Bertil feels appreciated and seen for the first time. I heard him talk about this at a Norwegian screening of the film: maybe it was the first time he was truly seen in his entire life. The scene ends with him accepting her again and they give each other a hug.”
That early scene has its own narrative that mirrors and explains the whole movie. “That’s what I love about documentary filming,” Ree said. “It’s difficult to do something similar in a fictional film. To be there is to be present and observe with a camera. When in the crucial moments an amazing cinematographer is filming, it’s like dancing with the subjects. You have one shot at knowing where to position yourself. It’s intuitive work. If you fuck up the positioning and focus, you won’t get the same subtext and complexity of a scene.”
Did Nordland feel the camera focused on him? “He doesn’t notice the camera,” said Ree. “He is showing his true emotions there. What we are exploring in the film is what we humans do to be seen and be appreciated; what it takes to see and appreciate others.”
Seventy percent of the time, Ree was his own one-man camera team, which is partly how he got his subjects to feel so comfortable in front of the camera. Ree filmed the deepening interaction between the painter and the thief over almost four years, so that eventually they forgot he was there. “In the beginning, you have to spend a lot of time with them,” he said. “They’re self-aware. They play the role of themselves and the role they want to be. But after two months they were unaware of the camera. Of course, we shared a common trust with each other. I also talk about dramaturgy and filmmaking with them so they understand why we film something.”
Clearly, the artist and her subject know that their relationship is a movie, and they are complicit in its unfolding narrative. “The camerawork is my personal artistic choice,” said Ree. “I feel I’m in the film as well. It plays on a meta level; it’s about storytelling. I am the one who constructs the two perspectives of Barbora and Karl-Bertil.”
Ree engaged them in discussions of what he needed to see; when Nordland is about to enter rehab, he invited Ree to film him resisting his girlfriend as he scores heroin. It’s a dramatic moment, as is his decision to get on a motorcycle — with catastrophic results. “We talked about the glorification of drugs in the media,” Ree said. “We wanted to show a side of drugs you hadn’t seen before, the ugly truth of what happens when the party has ended.”
But what about when both Nordland and Kysilkova (who struggles with her past as an abuse victim) become a danger to themselves? “It’s a huge dilemma for a documentary filmmaker,” said Ree, “especially on a film like this when you spend so much time with them. I consider them my friends, and contact them many times every week for almost four years, so what to do when they’re really struggling, when I’m there with a camera? Do I continue filming, or give them a hug, or stop and say, ‘don’t do that’? I don’t have a clear answer to that.”
Sometimes Ree did stop filming and interfered, and did keep some things out of the film, he said, “but most of the time, I kept on filming.” Nordland initially asked the filmmaker not to use the scene when he refuses to go to rehab. But then he changed his mind.
A volatile, self-destructive drug addict character provides plenty of drama. But Nordland also surprised Kysilkova and Ree when they turn up at his apartment to find it covered with aesthetically framed works of art. The painter fingers what looks like a valuable (if genuine) Käthe Kollwitz drawing. Nordland wanted them to confront the assumptions and stigma that accompany any criminal.
“We wanted to portray Karl-Bertil as a complex, charismatic, intelligent guy,” said Ree. “The only way to do that was to see the world from his perspective. It was fun: usually with muse and artist, you always follow the perspective of the artist. It’s unexpected to change perspectives for a film about what it means to be seen and to see others.”
In the editing room, Ree and his editor eventually found their cross-cutting structure. The movie shifts perspective from the painter to the thief, and then cuts back and forth between them. During conversations, Ree convinced the painter and her nurturing writer boyfriend to open up the troubled side of her life. “It was at a point in their lives when they were going to therapy,” Ree said. “Both of them wanted to show also Barbora’s struggles.”
On the one hand, Kysilkova is trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; she lost two paintings and crucial income, so at first she’s using Nordland as a subject and muse to jump-start some new paintings. But any relationship with a drug addict is fraught with the danger of codependency. “They both have a self-destructive past,” said Ree, “that is haunting them in a way that connected them like a harness. That sadness is something Barbora is fascinated about. They shared the same kind of dark humor. He has the will to live, he has the angel and demon working and fighting inside of him.”
“You’re the craziest person I ever met,” the artist tells Nordland in the film.
“She sees me,” he says later. “But she forgets that I can see her too.”
When the film was unveiled at Sundance, Kysilkova enjoyed her moment in the spotlight, but Nordland couldn’t attend because of his criminal record. So Ree told the crowd, “he wanted to let you know he has even bigger muscles and even more face tattoos. You can find him on Instagram. He’s single today.”
Ree was able to open the film last Friday in Norway with a quarter of the seats filled. But while he had fantasized that Neon would want his film, having distributed “The Biggest Little Farm” and “Honeyland,” among other breakouts, it’s “unfortunate they can’t show the film in theaters,” he said. “It is what it is.”