Skip to main content

Doc Star of the Month: Barbora Kysilkova, 'The Painter and the Thief'

By Lauren Wissot

Barbora Kysilkova (right) and Karl-Bertil Nordland, from Benjamin Ree's 'The Painter and the Thief.' Courtesy of NEON

One of the stranger stranger-than-fiction sagas to premiere at Sundance (where it picked up a Special Jury Award for Creative Storytelling) in January—yes, back when film festivals still happened in real life—Norwegian director Benjamin Ree's The Painter and the Thief follows the unconventional relationship as it unfolds between Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland, one a Czech naturalist painter, the other a petty criminal who steals two of the former's paintings from an Oslo gallery. Quickly arrested after the theft, Nordland refuses to give up his accomplices, or to even lift a finger to help recover the artwork. What he does agree to is Kysilkova's unusual request that he sit for a portrait. And then another. And another. Years go by. And even as the pictures remain frustratingly elusive, a man struggling with his own demons slowly transforms from nemesis to muse.

Luckily for Documentary, artist Barbora Kysilkova agreed to sit for May's Doc Star of the Month—and to let us in on the unexpected alchemy that occurred right before her eyes and through Ree's lens. The Painter and the Thief debuts digitally worldwide through Neon on May 22.

DOCUMENTARY: You didn’t know Benjamin or his team before filmmaking began. So why let him into your life with a camera?

BARBORA KYSILKOVA: The starting point was just my curiosity. I was quite surprised by how young Benjamin was, and how great an impression he made on me. Then a few years later, when the filming was almost at the end, Bertil visited me in my atelier and we spoke about why we'd agreed to be filmed. My reason was to show Bertil's incredible life story—his battles with being stigmatized—and for people to see what may happen when you get rid of prejudice. Bertil said he did it for me and my art. Then we just looked at each other, smiled, and opened new beers.

D: The art robbery was a media sensation in Norway. Which made me wonder if Benjamin's approach to you and the story differed in any way from how you were portrayed by the Oslo press.

BK: As much as you can squeeze into a few minutes of TV news, or two pages of a magazine, the story stays rather on the surface and a bit superficial. But Benjamin gave it time, which allowed him to discover the story in all its depths. I'm so glad he went for it. Digging deep, seeking the core of the story.

D: Do you have any favorite scenes? Any that are particularly difficult to watch?

BK: This is not easy to answer from my subjective position. But yes, the scene where Bertil says, 'I know she sees me, but she may not know that I see her too' made me surprisingly emotional. 

On the opposite scale is the scene where Øystein, my boyfriend, pokes on the pain and suffering I tend to put in my art. In my answer I justify it with the necessity of aesthetics as the main condition. It just came out so dull. Though the proper answer would take half of the film.

And surely, to be taken back to Bertil's car accident or on his way to rehab remains painful to me. But it all soothes up with the final scene.

D: What was the audience response at Sundance? In general, has anything surprised you about the way international viewers have reacted to your story?

BK: Oh, Sundance! The uniqueness of American audiences is incomparable. When the whole cinema gives you standing ovations as you approach the stage for Q&As—that has to take your breath away. Especially when you’re just one of millions of painters who spend most of their time alone in their ateliers. For sure, there were and are people who don’t feel positive about the movie, but they haven’t approached me—yet. At Sundance I was often stopped on the streets of Park City by people, mostly women, who wanted to express their gratitude. And who, after seeing the film, felt encouraged to give forgiveness to their own 'thieves.'

Then coronavirus stepped into our lives, and all the further international film festivals got canceled. Who knows how Czech, Japanese or Greek audiences would have reacted? But I think we got the best of the best at Sundance. And I want to thank all the people I met there.

D: How has participating in this project affected or changed you, and your relationship to Bertil?

BK: I remember a few days after the trial, I was talking about the experience of meeting Bertil for the first time to my dear friend Lillian. She said, 'Who knows? Maybe this art robbery is the best thing that has ever happened to Bertil.' Sure, you’d do better to ask him, but I dare believe in one of Bertil’s T-shirts that reads, 'Crime Pays.' In our case, and for me, it does. 

The absurdity of what connected our lives, what started our friendship that got even stronger now with the movie. Every friendship is a responsibility, and we both signed up for it.

How has the three years of filming affected me? I'm still happiest when being in my atelier working on new paintings. And it is overwhelming to understand that now the whole world can see my art.


Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for SalonBitchThe Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.