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The Painter and the Thief

30 March 2021

THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF, Norway, 2020, Docudrama, art and theft. Starring Barbora Kysiklova, Karl-Bertil Nordland, Oystein Stene. Directed by Benjamin Ree. 98 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language).

An audience coming upon this film without any fore-warning, would assume that it is a drama, a fictional story – and that is the way that it plays out. It comes as something of a surprise to find that it is, in fact, a documentary.

The central character is a Czech artist, Barbora Kysiklova, with a distinctive visual style, using photographs but developing characters and situations with sketching, pencil drawing, a vast pallete of paints and high imagination. She is living in Oslo, the film explaining that she had an abusive relationship in the Czech Republic but was rescued by a writer-director, Oystein Stene, and moved to Norway, where she has been successful, mounting an exhibition.

There are many sequences throughout the film showing her at work, different moments in her process of painting, and close-ups of many of them.

The complication comes when two of her paintings are stolen from a gallery. Surveillance footage is shown of the theft. However, the thieves are apprehended fairly quickly, followed by a court case.

The other central character is one of the thieves, Karl-Bertil Nordland, and the documentary shows Barbora’s portrait of him as well as offering a visual and psychological self portrait. He had a harsh childhood, but showed talent in carpentry. He is intelligent, but addictions had resulted in imprisonment and his involvement in the theft.

Which means that the central drama is the relationship between Barbora and Karl-Bertil, her questions, his responses, their being comfortable in each other’s presence, her decision to paint him, his extraordinary and weeping response to seeing the first portrait, more portraits, especially of his hand and its wound which looks like stigmata.

Documentary film-maker, Benjamin Ree, also one of the cinematographers, follows each of the characters over the years. Karl-Bertil was hospitalised after a car accident, another prison sentence, and sequences in the prison (so much more civilised than those huge American prisons with surly and violent prisoners in yards). The filmmaker also follows Barbora, some sequences of marriage counselling, her growing involvement with Karl-Bertil, especially in his rehabilitation after the accident, not communicating with him in prison, but their meeting again, he something of a different person, clean and with ambitions to do something with his life as he turns 40.

The film keeps part of its intrigue until the final 20 minutes, some revelations about what happened with the theft and the consequences.

Audiences will wonder how the documentary came to be made, has it has such access to surveillance, the art, to the lives of the two characters. The IMDb (under the unfortunate title, Trivia) offers some detailed information – to be read after the viewing of the film.


The film started as a short documentary, but the filmmakers changed their plan when Karl-Bertil saw himself painted for the first time. Then they decided to keep on filming for many years to come. They filmed from 2016-2019 not knowing what would happen or where the story might go.

The reason why Barbora Kysiklova (the painter) is speaking English in the film is because she doesn't understand Norwegian.

From the director's statement: "From the moment I began filming I wanted to explore the complex friendship between the painter and the thief. Two questions were the driving motor: What do we humans do to be seen and appreciated, and why do we help others? For me, filmmaking is about asking intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging questions through observing human behavior. I hope I have managed to raise some intriguing questions with this film, questions you will think about long after the end credits. I have also tried to push the cinema verite form onto a new path, with several perspectives jumping back and forth in time, revealing new layers of the friendship throughout the whole film. I have worked hard to find a cinematic form to suit the content for each scene, that reflects the inner state of the characters."  

A friend of Barbora began filming her already back in 2014. She took photos and filmed the making of the two paintings that later would be stolen and she was also there during the exhibition. She also participated in the trial. The courtroom recordings are the actual recording of the first meeting of Karl-Bertil and Barbora. Together with the CCTV footage, these archives makes up the beginning of the film.

The filmmakers read about the robbery in various Norwegian newspapers. They contacted Barbora and began filming her first, and it took some time to get access to film Karl-Bertil (the thief). They began filming him the 4th time Barbora and Karl-Bertil met.

Madman Films
Released 25 March
Peter Malone MSC is an associate Jesuit Media


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