Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova first met Norwegian drug addict and petty criminal Karl-Bertil Nordland in 2015 when he was on trial for stealing two of her paintings. In the dock, the heavily tattooed, feral-looking Nordland admitted that he had little memory of stealing her works from Oslo’s Galley Nobel, and had no idea where they were now – he was that high. Swan Song, a picture of two swans, and Chloe & Emma, one of two girls, could be anywhere.
He did, however, admit that he thought they were beautiful. While the crime was impulsive, he had looked through the gallery window at the paintings countless times. Hearing this, Kysilkova did the unthinkable: she asked Nordland to pose for her.
Directed by Benjamin Ree (Magnus), The Painter and the Thief is a genuinely sublime work of documentary filmmaking, and one that defies easy categorisation. It is vast, yet intimate; to mangle a paraphrase, it contains multitudes. Yes, it is a true crime story about a victim confronting a transgressor. Yes, it’s about the relationship between artist and muse, and about the potential for exploitative behaviour in either direction. It’s about crime and punishment, specifically the Norwegian model. And much more.
To try and pin it down is a Sisyphean task but boiled down to the basics Ree’s film is about empathy – radical empathy. Ree was fortunate enough to be able to film the pair over the course of three years, and the access he was granted lends the film an incredible, and occasionally, uncomfortable, level of intimacy. We follow Kysilkova as she makes tentative contact with Nordland and starts to enter his world and we fear for her – this man is a criminal and she could be in danger.
As the film progresses, we come to know the troubled but gifted Nordland, a generous, funny guy wrestling with his own worst impulses, and we fear for him: what is he to Kysilkova? Is he a subject to be captured and then discarded? Our sympathies tick-tock from one to the other. There’s a tension in play – perhaps native to our ingrained cultural perception of criminals and crime, perhaps not – that at some point the other shoe will drop, that she’ll be robbed, or he will be abandoned, or some kind of revelation, some twist in the tail, will lead us to some harrowing final act climax.
However, the twist is that there is no twist. The Painter and the Thief is not about the awful things that can befall us when we open ourselves to others, but the wonderful things. It’s about what happens when we see people as people, when we listen to them with intent and empathy, when we take what they have shared with us and incorporate it into our own personal world. It is, simply, a story of friendship.
The key moment of Ree’s film comes when Nordland first sees Kysilkova’s first painting of him. We see waves of emotion run through him like an electric current: surprise, shock, wonder, gratitude, amazement. In her painting he’s beautiful, like Swan Song and Chloe & Emma, but he hasn’t been made beautiful; rather the artist has simply looked and found what was already there. He sees himself and knows that he has been seen. To be seen, to be heard, to be accepted – isn’t that all anyone really wants?
The Painter and the Thief is now streaming at SBS On Demand.