The Painter and the Thief




A remarkable study of two contrasted lives that would become intertwined.

Painter and the Thief, The

Benjamin Ree's much lauded documentary is a work of substantial interest on more than one level. First of all, there's the unusual nature of the story that it has to tell which is the aspect that will mean most to the majority of its viewers. It starts off with private footage and pictures from surveillance cameras which show us an exhibition at the Nobel gallery in Oslo on the night in 2015 when two paintings by the Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova were stolen. She is the painter of the title and the thief, Karl-Bertil Nordland, is first seen as a shadowy figure on that video footage as he and a companion make good their escape. Both men were quickly identified albeit without much hope existing for the recovery of the stolen paintings, but what followed was unexpected. Kysilkova, then living in Norway with her husband Øystein Stene, saw Nordland in court and, curious and forgiving rather than angry, she asked Nordland to pose for her. The invitation led to a friendship between them and this film depicting that unlikely friendship and made over three years records what is an intriguingly off-beat tale.


That is where the strong surface appeal of The Painter and the Thief is to be found, but for those interested in filmmaking and its techniques Ree's film also fascinates as a striking example of how adroitly a documentary can be given the impact of filmed drama. First, the story is told without interviews or commentary, the hallmarks of most documentary works. Secondly, having clearly won the trust of his two central figures, Ree is able to shoot the material with close-ups and with the kind of shooting style that re-enforces the grip of the narrative but without ever suggesting that scenes have been falsified by being set up for the camera. Thirdly, extra dramatic value is brought to the tale by using alternating viewpoints. The first section, 'The Painter', looks at things through Kysilkova's eyes, but a second named section, which even on occasion briefly replays an incident from the first and which is entitled 'The Thief', shows us Nordland's angle on events. Later on, but without such labelling, sections continue to vary the viewpoint so that both figures are seen not only as they see themselves but as the other saw them.


On top of all that, there's an extra dramatic charge within the material itself since it invites audiences to think about the implications inherent in it: on the one hand specifically Norwegian attitudes are reflected in the way that crime, punishment and rehabilitation are seen here and on the other hand the personal story causes us to ponder the extent to which the central bond is down to the painter and the thief being in a sense kindred spirits (initially they seem to belong to different worlds but each has been faced by dark issues that have affected their lives).


With so much to interest us, it is to be regretted that the last section of the film loses its grip.  Where an even more extraordinary real-life tale, 2018's Three Identical Strangers, held one firmly to the very end, The Painter and the Thief trails off anticlimactically with late footage about the recovery of one of the stolen paintings in which Nordland played no part. It is ironical that what until then has been a documentary shaped for maximum dramatic effect suddenly becomes a film that ceases to be well-structured. It does mean that overall I prefer Ree's earlier documentary feature, the splendid Magnus (2016), but that's not to say that The Painter and the Thief is unworthy of being sought out, far from it.




Featuring  Barbora Kysilkova, Karl-Bertil Nordland, Øystein Stene, Merete Morken Andersen, Bjorn-Inge Nordland, Janne Lind Nordland.


Dir Benjamin Ree, Pro Ingvil Giske and Muno Helmersson, Ph Kristoffer Kumar and Benjamin Ree, Ed Robert Stengård.


Medieoenoperatørene/VGTV/Tremolo Productions/Neon-Dogwoof.
102 mins. Norway. 2020. Rel: 30 October 2020. Available on BFI Player and on VoD. Cert. 15.