Review: ‘The Painter and the Thief,’ starring Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland

May 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Karl-Bertil Nordland and Barbora Kysilkova in “The Painter and the Thief” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“The Painter and the Thief”

Directed by Benjamin Ree

English and Norwegian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway, the documentary “The Painter and the Thief” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A talented painter befriends a drug-addicted criminal after he stole two of her paintings, and their complicated relationship often causes friction in their lives.

Culture Audience: “The Painter and the Thief” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in unique, well-made documentaries about emotionally damaged adults.

Karl-Bertil Nordland in “The Painter and the Thief” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

By far one of the best documentaries of the year, “The Painter and the Thief” is not a celebrity profile, does not push a political agenda, and will not uncover scandalous information that’s meant to shock people. Instead, the documentary beautifully tells a story of two people who have formed an unexpectedly intense friendship because of an unlikely connection. The two people at the heart of the story—Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland—became close friends after he was arrested in 2015 for breaking into the Gallery Nobel in Oslo and stealing two valuable paintings that she made.

Kysilkova and Nordland, who were both in their 30s when this film was made, did not know each other prior to the crime. The break-in and theft were caught on surveillance video, which is why Nordland and his accomplice were quickly arrested. Nordland said in his court testimony and he told many other people (including Barbara) that he and the accomplice did not intend to steal any particular paintings. They just happened to like what they saw in Kysilkova’s paintings and they randomly stole them. The paintings were worth almost €20,000, according to a TV news report shown in the documentary.

Kysilkova felt compelled to strike up a conversation with Nordland while he was sitting alone during a waiting period in the courtroom proceedings. This brief encounter is presented in audio only and augmented by courtroom illustrations, since video cameras were not allowed inside the courtroom. And that’s how their friendship began, but then she did something unexpected: She asked Nordland if she could paint a portrait of him. And he agreed.

Kysilkova originally intended to talk to Nordland to find out what happened to her paintings, which had not been recovered by investigators. The documentary shows conversations that Kysilkova and Nordland had before and after he and his accomplice were each sentenced to 75 days in prison. It’s not the first time that Nordland went to prison and it wasn’t the last time either.

But the documentary shows that there’s more to this story than a compassionate woman who forgave someone who committed a crime against her. What started out as a conversation in a courtroom developed into a deep and complicated friendship that sometimes caused tension in Kysilkova’s relationship with her boyfriend Øystein Stene. Kysilkova and Nordland open up to each other about their past and present lives, which are also revealed in the documentary.

“The Painter and the Thief” does not have interviews with talking heads, animation or re-created scenes with actors. Instead, director Benjamin Ree skillfully lets the story unfold by just showing what happens. He and the other filmmakers got involved in the story when Ree heard that Kysilkova asked Nordland if she could paint his portrait. The early footage of the painter and the thief getting to know each other was actually filmed by a friend of Kysilkova’s who had been documenting her life as an artist.

Even though this documentary’s filmmakers were not there from the beginning of the story, it’s obvious that they did not know how the movie was going to end—and documentaries made without a pre-determined outcome are usually the best type of nonfiction. The film lets viewers go on the journey with the filmmakers to see what happens in this fascinating story.

It’s clear from the beginning of the film that Kysilkova, whose specialty is human portraits, is a very talented painter and a true artist. She’s the type of artist who needs to create every day and will shut herself off from the outside world if necessary when she’s in the midst of creating her art. She has a calm, usually optimistic demeanor, but the movie slowly unravels layers of her personality to show that she’s also attracted to dark subjects (she has a fascination with tragic deaths) and damaged individuals.

Kysilkova is a Czech Repubic native, who previously lived in Berlin before moving to Oslo. Viewers find out during the movie that she relocated to Oslo with her boyfriend Stene (who is several years older than Kysilkova) to escape from a previous relationship with an ex-boyfriend who allegedly physically and emotionally abused her. Stene also mentions that the ex-boyfriend stalked, threatened and harassed them, which is the main reason why they moved to another country. (In the documentary, Kysilkova sometimes refers to Stene as her “husband,” but it’s made clear in the film that they are not married.)

As a child, Kysilkova was a sensitive soul with a capacity for kindness and compassion that go beyond what an average person has. For example, when she was a child who visited the grave of a dead relative, she noticed that there was a grave of an unnamed Jewish girl that would never have any visitors, so Kysilkova would leave flowers on the grave too.

And throughout the film, Kysilkova is described as someone who doesn’t hesitate to help friends and other people who are down on their luck. She’s the type of person who, even if she’s struggling to pay for food for herself, won’t hesitate to buy a meal for someone who needs it. Kysilkova’s parents are not seen or mentioned in the film, so that part of her background remains a mystery in the documentary.

And how did Nordland become a drug addict and criminal? His troubled background gives some insight. He had a happy childhood living on a farm with his parents and his younger brother and sister. But when his parents divorced when he was 8, his life was thrown into chaos. His mother left with his two younger siblings, and he never had contact with any of them again.

His father raised him, but was frequently away because he worked a lot. (Nordland’s father is still in his son’s life, as shown by a few scenes in the documentary.) After high school, Nordland worked with special-needs kids and seemed to be on track to leading a productive life.

But somewhere along the way, he fell in with the wrong crowd, and he became a criminal and a drug addict. It’s apparent that the trauma of his childhood has led to his lifelong feelings of abandonment, loneliness and feeling inferior to other people. Nordland isn’t self-pitying, but it’s clear from the movie that he has a lot of inner turmoil.

“The Painter and the Thief” uses an unconventional tactic by not having all of this biographical information revealed from first-person interviews, but by having Kysilkova and Nordland reveal some of this information about each other’s lives in voiceover narration. It’s a way for viewers to discover what each person in the friendship confided to each other.

Nordland says in the movie that while it seemed like Kysilkova was the one studying him for their portrait sessions, he was also studying her. And the film sometimes switches back and forth from being told from Kysilkova’s perspective and Nordland’s perspective. Because of the documentary’s outstanding editing from Robert Stengеrd, these double perspectives work very well in the film.

At one point in the film, Kysilkova marvels in a voiceover narration about Norland being a fascinating dichotomy. She says that under different circumstances, he could have ended up as a terrorist or the prime minister of Norway. Norland also says in a separate voiceover that he’s also noticed two sides of Kysilkova, because although she has a sweet and kind nature, her fascination with death and dark subjects is reflected in some of art and her life choices.

From the beginning of his friendship with Kysilkova, Nordland admits that he’s a hardcore drug addict. He tells her that his drug addiction is why he doesn’t remember what happened to the stolen paintings, because he was strung out on meth and other drugs when he committed the crime. He says that the entire month of the theft was “a blur” to him. He tells her, “How can you understand that’s been awake for four days and using 20 grams of amphetamine and eating 100 pills?”

Nordland is also candid with Kysilkova about his criminal record. And during a portrait session, he opens up to her how most of the friends he knew when he was a rebellious teenager are now dead or in prison. Instead of being weekend partiers, “We liked to party from Wednesday to Wednesday,” he tells Kysilkova. Her response? “I like your sense of humor.”

Kysilkova’s non-judgmental approach to Nordland is one of the main reasons why their friendship was able to evolve into a deep and trusting bond. When she shows him the finished portrait, he bursts into tears in a way that someone cries when they have a lifetime of emotional pain to let out. It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the film. And it’s also a turning point in Norland and Kysilkova’s relationship, because it’s clear that Norland hasn’t been that open with someone in a very long time.

Soon after this emotional breakthrough, Kysilkova visits Nordland in his apartment that he shares with his girlfriend Samara, also known as Sammy, who isn’t there when Kysilkova comes to visit. Kysilkova compliments Nordland on how his apartment has many pictures on the wall, because she says she doesn’t really like minimalist interior design. It’s during this visit that Nordland presents her with an emotionally moving letter.

In yet another example of one friend saying what the other is feeling, he asks her to read the letter aloud. In the letter, he tells her: “You inspire and teach me so much in my sometime emotional life … Art isn’t just a painting, but so much more—all the feelings, tears. Nobody has ever seen me vulnerable like you [have]. True, pure friendship.”

Nordland says later in the film, “Because of my background, I’ve always been skeptical of strangers.” When he first met Kysilkova, he thought that she was trying to trick him or expose him. But when she showed that she genuinely wanted to be his friend, that’s when he decided to trust her.

But are they really just platonic friends? Throughout the film, there are signs that Norland and Kysilkova are also sexually attracted to each other and falling in love, by the way they look at each and make flirtatious remarks. She sometimes blushes and gets giggly in his presence. And he writes letters to her that sound a lot like love notes.

Do they act on this attraction? The documentary provides more insight, but Norland and Kysilkova’s deep bond doesn’t go unnoticed by Kysilkova’s boyfriend, who’s visibly uncomfortable with these two getting closer to each other. Kysilkova and Stene are in couples therapy, and the documentary includes footage from a therapy session. Kysilkova and Nordland are so close that she even confides to him that she doesn’t really like being in couples therapy.

The film also shows Stene and Kysilkova arguing about the ethics of her doing a close-up portrait of a wound that Norland has in the middle of his hand. It’s a puncture wound that people with religious knowledge might notice as being similar to a Christ-like stigmata wound, which might be one of the reasons why Kysilkova wants to do the portrait. Stene thinks it’s inappropriate for his girlfriend to do this portrait, while Kysilkova admits it might seem unethical, but it’s not unethical if the person who’s being painted doesn’t have a problem with it. It’s obvious from this argument that the real issue isn’t the portrait but the growing emotional intimacy between Kysilkova and Nordland.

As for Nordland’s girlfriend Sammy (an older lady whose tattooed personal style is reminiscent of a buzzcut Wendy O. Williams), she seems to be okay with the friendship between Kysilkova and Nordland. If Sammy had any jealousy issues, they’re not shown in the documentary. In fact, Kysilkova comes up with the idea to do an intimate portrait of Nordland and Sammy together, where they both are in a scantily clad, romantic embrace in a love seat. It’s a portrait idea that will have special significance at the end of the film.

Kysilkova and Nordland have a close friendship, but there are times when Kysilkova seems blissfully naïve or very much in denial about how Nordland’s drug addiction affects his behavior and their friendship. She can’t seem to understand why he disappears for long period of time. (There’s a scene of her leaving frustrated voice mail messages for him when he doesn’t call her back.)

And in another scene, a very unhealthy-looking and obviously strung-out Nordland (whose sunken face is an obvious sign of meth addiction) comes over to her place and seems in a daze and emotionally distant. And she wonders aloud why he’s acting that way.

In another scene, Nordland calls her while he’s clearly high on some illegal substance and starts rambling to her in an agitated state about how he’s going leave Oslo and to move to the country. Instead of being alarmed, she cheerfully responds, “Okay, talk to you later.” You don’t have to be a therapist to see these are classic signs of a co-dependent relationship. The question is if it’s destructive or healing.

Watching the film, viewers will also wonder who cares enough about Nordland to try to get him into rehab. That issue is addressed in the movie. And what happens after that also brings some twists and turns to the story that will take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster, as someone in the film experiences a major transformation.

In a world that’s often focused on how governments and societies affect people’s lives, “The Painter and the Thief” is a superb testimonial about how a relationship between two people can have an equally important impact on someone’s life. It’s also an example of how true friendship can come from unexpected places if someone is open to it. The very last image in the movie leaves no doubt about that.

Neon released “The Painter and the Thief” on Hulu, digital, VOD and in select U.S. virtual cinemas and drive-in theaters on May 22, 2020.