Barbora Kysilkova, a Czech painter, had just recently moved to Oslo when she received a distressing phone call from a gallerist. Two men had finagled their way into the Galleri Nobel in broad daylight, and made off with two works. Both were hers. She wasn’t so much angry as confused. “Why would anyone steal my art?” she wondered. It was part modesty – “I am not a known artist that is worth it to break in, break a law and steal. I’m not Picasso,” she told the Guardian – and part practicality. The two stolen works, Chloe & Emma and Swan Song, were absorbing, photorealistic paintings that both stretched beyond 4x6ft. The thieves not only managed to walk out with the canvases rolled up under their arms, but carefully uprooted over 200 staples to remove them from their frames intact, a task that would take an expert at least an hour.
Kysilkova was as much fixated on the men who carefully absconded with two of her beloved works as with the recovery of the paintings themselves. So when security footage led to the arrest of the thieves, but not the paintings, she took matters into her own hands. As she prepared to witness the trial of one thief, a heavily tattooed man with prior prison history named Karl-Bertil Nordland, she “felt very curious as a person but foremost as an artist”, she said. “I didn’t know what, but I knew something had to be done with it.” If he had stolen her cellphone or her watch, she could move on. But not her work. “I can’t just let it pass,” she thought.
And so she approached the witness stand, and asked Nordland: “Maybe we could meet some time? Of course, all for the purpose that I’d love to make a portrait of you.”
The resulting tangle of a relationship – an experiment in compassion, empathy, the negotiation of vulnerability and the conflicting, subconscious motivations to observe and be observed – forms The Painter and the Thief, a remarkable documentary by the Norwegian film-maker Benjamin Ree that plays more like a twisting narrative film than real-life portrait. The film, which earned rave reviews after its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, traces first the artist’s determination to understand Nordland, who claimed to be too intoxicated to remember what he did with her paintings (his accomplice is, for the most part, edited out of this narrative). But in their first post-court meet-up, at an Oslo restaurant, he remembers why he stole them: “Because they were beautiful.”
His answer won over Kysilkova, who can’t resist the pull of a risky aesthetic experience; she begins to paint him, while Ree, a recessive presence, films their congenial encounters over the course of three years. Before meeting the odd couple, Ree had been fascinated with art thievery, a high-stakes crime with a delicate touch. A chance Google search coincided with the Galleri Nobel robbery, and he connected with Kysilkova for what he thought would be a short film. “I wasn’t sure where this story might end up,” he told the Guardian.
That changed as he continued to witness Nordland and Kysilkova open each other up and, in particular, the moment when the painter surprise reveals a portrait to the unsuspecting thief. “When we first began filming and before I got to know Karl-Bertil, he was a really tattooed guy who had spent many years in prison. And for people who don’t know him, he can appear like a dangerous person,” said Ree.
A tattoo blared across Nordland’s chest: “Snitchers are a Dying Breed.” But the hardened persona, one honed through an abusive, distant childhood and, later, narcotics dealing, crumbled at the sight of Kysilkova’s empathetic rendering of his likeness. A time-lapse of emotions plays over his face as he slowly, then all at once, breaks down in sobs, and the two embrace, a bond sealed. The scene is a standout; the intensity of the human desire to feel seen hits like the sharp high of plunging into clear, cold water.
When Ree first started filming them, “I was still quite occupied by this person, so the fact that there was a movie did not play a role in the first line for me,” said Kysilkova. “It was like, why not?” But as she got to know him – over WhatsApp and through Facebook, at dinner and with Nordland’s girlfriend, whom she also photographs for a joint portrait – the painter began to see the project as its own emotional exploration: “What happens if you allow the person who you should condemn … to come into your life?”
When, about a third of the way into the 106-minute film, Nordland’s struggles with drugs land him in the hospital, Kysilkova attends to his recovery, which strips the instinct-propelled emotional experiment of their friendship of its remaining guardrails. Kysilkova is drawn to paint the scars of Nordland’s hand, which resemble Christ’s stigmata – fitting for a man who felt misunderstood and stigmatized for his whole life. The film then refracts the past year through Nordland’s perspective, as he observes the attentive painter. “She sees me very well, but she forgets I can see her too,” he says.
The Kysilkova he, and the film, sees is a woman perpetually drawn to the darker edges of humankind (many of her paintings depict death with unflinching imagery), one who rebuilt from the wreckage of an abusive relationship, who struggles to reconcile creativity with the financial realities of the art world, who attempts to explain her instinctual desire to pursue a friendship with Nordland to her partner, Øystein Stene, who likens Kysilkova’s trust in her works’ thief to letting a child play in traffic. (“I played in traffic in Prague, there was no other way,” Kysilkova half-jokingly retorts in a couples’ counseling session Ree also attended).
The second-half twists in the film – Kysilkova’s continued pursuit of her paintings without Nordland, his continued opening of his emotions during a stint in jail – bend their separate arcs back together, albeit with some film-making sleight of hand (as mentioned, little is revealed of the other accomplice), into a satisfying and expertly revealed final bow. But the relationship between the painter and the thief does not reconcile or reduce so easily – it is, like the most emotionally raw and grounded of friendships, born of universal desire to be understood, yet feels singular in its specifics. Kysilkova and Ree spoke of the project, however, as less an answer than the natural flow into a question of curiosity, of temporarily setting aside one’s judgment and prejudices, or the anger of stolen hard work.
“The questions I would like to explore here are: what do humans do in order to be seen and appreciated?” said Ree. “And what it takes of us to help and see others.”