visiting Prague’s Rudolfinum concert hall will find themselves in Jan Palach
Square. The newest public square in the
Old Town quarter, it was known as Square of Red Army Soldiers during the grim
era of Communism. An earnest university
student, Palach sacrificed his life to re-awaken opposition to the Soviet
occupation of 1968 (those very same Red Army Soldiers), eventually becoming a
galvanizing symbol of the Velvet Revolution.
filmmaker Agnieszka Holland was also studying in the then Czechoslovakia when
Palach self-immolated on Wenceslas Square.
She shared the feelings of inspiration, frustration, and rage that swept
across the country in the days that followed. Now she masterfully captures the
tenor of those oppressive times in the monumental Burning Bush (trailer
opens today in New York at Film Forum.
a man ignite himself into flames is a disturbing sight, as Holland shows
viewers in no uncertain terms. Unfortunately, Palach does not die immediately,
but lingers on life support for three days. Having left multiple letters of
protest, there was no question why Palach did what he did. As he hoped, the
student movement is emboldened to call for a general strike. The government
swings into full panic mode, fearing more will follow his example. The Party’s
heavy-handed techniques do not sit well with Police Major Jireš, but his
ostensive subordinate is more than willing to do the dirty work he assumes will
advance his career.
months pass, Palach’s fragile mother, Libuše Palachová, becomes the target of a
ruthless harassment campaign. When a hardline member of parliament publicly
slanders Palach at a regional CP conference, the Palach family decides to file
suit, but finding a lawyer willing to accept their case is a difficult
proposition. Eventually, Dagmar Burešová agrees to take the case, but it will
cost her family dearly.
Palach appears relatively briefly in Burning
Bush, his absence is felt keenly throughout. He is the missing man—the ghost at the
banquet. However, his mother and her advocate are very much of and in the world
as it was, and must carry on as best they can. Frankly, Burning Bush will be nothing less than revelatory for many
viewers. Typically films dealing with
the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion end in 1968, with a happier
1989 postscript frequently appended to the end.
However, Holland and screenwriter Štĕpán Hulík train their focus on the
nation’s absolutely darkest days.
onetime protégé and close collaborator of Andrzej Wajda, Holland has vividly
addressed the Communist experience with films like The Interrogation and To Kill a Priest, while also finding tremendous American success directing
leading-edge HBO programs like The Wire and
Treme. On paper, Holland sounds like
the perfect director for this project, yet she manages to exceed expectations
with a clear-cut career masterwork.
is considerable scale to Burning Bush, but
it is intimately engrossing. Viewers acutely share the fear and pain of the
Palach family and marvel the Bureš family’s matter-of-fact defiance. Somehow
Holland simultaneous builds the suspense, as Burešová methodically exposes the
Party’s lies and deceits, as well as a mounting sense of high tragedy, as the secret
police rig the system against her.
Pokorná’s turn as Palach’s mother is not merely a performance, it is an
indictment viewers will feel in their bones. It is a convincingly harrowing
portrayal of a woman nearly broken by the Communist state. Likewise, Petr Stach conveys all the inner
conflicts roiling inside Jiří Palach, the brother forced to hold himself
together for the sake of his family (and arguably his country). Ivan Trojan’s
increasingly disillusioned Major Jireš adds further depth and dimension to the film.
Although it is the “glamour” role, Tatiana Pauhofová still scores some
impressive moments as Burešová, particularly with Jan Budař as her husband
Chosen by the Czech Republic as its official
foreign language submission to the Academy Awards, but disqualified because it
was originally produced for Czech HBO, Burning
Bush is either excellent cinema or outstanding television, depending on how
chose to categorize it. Although its 234 minute running time might sound
intimating, it is a blisteringly tight and tense viewing experience. An important but deeply moving work, Burning Bush opens today at Film Forum,
screening in two parts, covered by one total admission charge.
Labels: Agnieszka Holland, Communism, Czech Cinema, Jan Palach