“Written by neophyte screenwriter Štěpán Hulík and directed by the Czech-educated Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa), Burning Bush restages a landmark event in modern Czech history,” wrote Celluloid Liberation Front for Indiewire following the international premiere of HBO Europe’s four-hour mini-series in Rotterdam. “On January 16th, 1969, 21-year-old student Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Part of a suicidal pact that a group of young students had made in opposition to the Soviet invasion, Palach’s extreme gesture became a monument of resistance. Given the opportunistically abused nature of the subject and its potential for melodrama, the risk of inflicting audiences with a gold brick of mellifluous proportions was high. But Burning Bush instead veers away from the pseudo-historical fairy tales Hollywood specializes in to deliver a master class in modern historical drama.”
Speaking to Dorota Hartwich, whose own review at Cineuropa notes the “strong narrative dynamism” of Burning Bush, Holland recalls that, on “the day Jan Palach set fire to himself, I was back in Poland for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. But when I returned to Prague, two weeks later, people were still at the cemetery… I was very moved. At the same time, it was very painful to see that after such a burst of solidarity, all the enthusiasm for the struggle faded away very quickly. I saw the agony of the Prague Spring: it lasted more than a year. We had to wait 20 years, until January 1989 and the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, for the spirit of revolt to rise again and foreshadow the political upheaval. The story is therefore very close to me: I was in it.”
In his screenplay, notes Alissa Simon in Variety, Hulík “centers the action on charismatic attorney Dagmar Buresova (Tatiana Pauhofová) and the remaining members of the Palach family—Jan’s mother Libuse (Jaroslava Pokorná) and brother Jiri (Petr Stach)—who hire Dagmar to sue parliament member Vilem Novy (Martin Huba) for libel. After Jan’s death, Novy made a much-reported speech that scandalously belittled him and suggested the existence of a false conspiracy. Surrounding these principal characters is a large, well-etched ensemble, encompassing the student protesters who attempt to preserve the remaining ideals of the Prague Spring and publicly defend it against systematic repression, as well as the STB, the Czech secret police, who deal mercilessly with any activity that could be considered anti-communist.”
“Spy-movie intrigue escalates,” writes Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter. “Eventually, the personality cult around Palach becomes so troubling to the authorities that they exhume his body, cremate him and re-allocate his grave. Holland and her team maintain an impressive level of tension here considering the drama’s final hour mostly involves tense private conversations and nit-picking legal debate. An evergreen human story with obvious contemporary parallels in the Middle East and elsewhere, Burning Bush might have ended as just another depressing condemnation of totalitarian oppression, but history later served up a happy ending. As the final coda suggests, even if the young protestors of the Prague Spring lost the battle, they later won the war.”
Geoffrey Macnab‘s interviewed Holland for Screen Daily, and the Prague Post has spoken with her as well: “Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski—you have worked with all three great directors. Who has influenced your work the most?” Holland: “I think I was influenced by the Czech New Wave the most, especially Evald Schorm and Jan Němec, Ivan Passer, and my professors were Karel Kachyňa and Otakar Vávra. Schorm has also influenced me as a person. Their films still inspire me today. My cinema has always oscillated between Polish pathos and Czech civilness.”
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