The Painter and The Thief is the kind of batshit real-life story that practically demands the documentary treatment. The unlikely friendship between artist Barbora Kysilkova and Karl Bertil-Nordland, the drug addict and thief who stole one of her paintings from its gallery in 2015. As their dynamic evolves the story becomes riddled with the kinds of twists and turns that rival most mystery fiction. Yet Benjamin Ree’s documentary tempers its unbelievable story with a humanity and warmth which reveals the best of reality.
To its credit the documentary resists the temptation to frame itself as a kind of mystery around the missing paintings. Establishing quickly that Karl Bertil, high at the time of the theft, has no memory of what happened. Instead The Painter and The Thief is about exactly that, Barbora and Karl Bertil’s relationship as he serves as the subject for a series of her paintings. A playful sort of dominance is hinted at as Barbora relishes having the thief at her disposal. However, any sort of twisted power play is broken the moment Karl-Bertil sees his first portrait. Breaking down at the sight of himself, captured with such beauty, we see the humanity behind the broken criminal. The gentility and aspiration that Karl Bertil used to have and with Barbora’s help, he might regain.
Barbora meanwhile is shown to hardly be in a position to reform anyone. Still a relative unknown in the art world she struggles creatively and financially throughout the film. Her journey to Norway following an abusive relationship in Berlin is covered in significant detail, hinted as the cause of her obsessive habits. Her healthy, if fraught relationship with long-term partner Oystein shows deep cracks that the presence of Karl Bertil only brings to the surface.
Unlike a lot of documentaries, The Painter and The Thief has plenty of narrative beats to follow as a linear story. Barbora and Karl-Bertil’s friendship hits an early bump as he relapses and crashes a stolen car, putting himself in hospital for several weeks. Barbora works tirelessly to support him, literally helping him back onto his feet as he recovers. His subsequent return to prison proves to be a restorative period as he reflects on what he wants from life. Karl Bertil emerges a fuller person, both spiritually and physically. Ready to build a new life for himself.
Barbora meanwhile has one more surprise. During Karl Bertil’s incarceration she managed to locate the other thief from the gallery and was able to find her missing painting. Retrieving it from a gang leader’s property in a sequence that is understated, yet fraught with danger. Her relief at finding the painting, her ‘Swan Song’, is palpable.
A common rule of writing is ‘Is this the most interesting event in your characters life?’, however it is rare for documentary to feel like it has genuinely captured this. The Painter and The Thief is a fascinating portrait of two complex, conflicted people with lives and dimensions outside of each other. Yet, when brought together they create a dynamic that ebbs and flows with the rhythm of fiction. The kind of chaotic turbulence to life that you couldn’t make up if you tried.