Agnieszka Holland‘s epic Burning Bush—made in three parts as a Czech mini-series—is one of those epochal pop-culture documents that attains instant stature simply by way of its intimate relationship with real history. The story it tells is one of the late 20th century’s pivotal subliminal threads, an instant in which a rogue individual act burned in the heart of a national consciousness until it, finally and against all odds, changed everything. The context itself is as much a signature of the modern era as the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward and the youth-explosion/Civil Rights-charged 1960s: the Iron Curtain mid-century, when half of Europe awoke to find itself under totalitarian rule just as a new postwar generation was getting educated, getting rock-and-roll and getting angry about having to live in a constant condition of official hypocrisy and disinformation. Movies were there–the New Wave movements, explicitly indexed by Holland in scores of ways, captured the situation visually and made it iconic, as they also crystallized the new generation’s sense of rebellious yearning. A cinephile of any vintage will be familiar with the wet Eastern European city streets and intimately-lit flats, the woolen raincoats and precious bob hairdos and factory-line lives of the Warsaw Pact countries between the fifties and 1980, as it all has been manifested in some of world cinema’s all-time greatest films.
The moment Holland’s four-hour film addresses is, for Czechoslovaks, a totemic piece of their national identity: the self-immolation of twenty-year-old student Jan Palach in Prague’s Wenceslas Square January 16, 1969. The Soviet tanks that ended the Prague Spring had come five months earlier, and Czechoslovakia was in a delirious state of bliss and fury–bounced from having tasted the freedoms and joys of democratic liberalization in the sixties to having the boot back on their throats, the secret police more threatening than ever, the media caught in the bind of perpetual Orwellian newspeak. A member of a tiny and secret cabal of student protestors, Palach simply doused himself with gasoline, and explained himself—maintaining he was just the first of many oncoming “torches”–in letters left behind. Holland’s film wastes no time and begins wordlessly in Wenceslas Square, as passersby either ignore or idly watch Palach unpack and then suddenly tilt a bucket of clear liquid over his head. It’s a pivot in time to which no Czech citizen is ignorant, and Holland’s grave and detailed version is hyperattentive to its resonance.
Why Palach’s death (three days later in the hospital) resonated so comprises the bulk of Holland’s film. Scripted by first-timer Stepan Hulik, Burning Bush is about the struggle to allow Palach’s act to stand alone as an individual statement, against the actions of the Communist government to denounce it, slander Palach and make his memory disappear altogether. Predictably, the state’s attempts to reduce the suicide to a botched act of delusional anti-revolutionarism spurred the opposition and helped make Palach a public martyr. The film gets all nuts and bolts about it, following how the off-screen pronouncements about Palach by Party member Vilem Novy (Martin Huber) ignite a lawsuit for libel brought by Palach’s grieving mother (Jaroslava Pokorna). The beautiful young lawyer chosen for the case, Dagmar Buresova (Tatiana Pauhofova), is Holland’s slowly emerging heroine, a relentless advocate who has to first find the politico in question (his address and whereabouts are a state secret), and who is alone among the characters in not seeming to quite understand that the Prague Spring is indeed over, and that she and Mrs. Palachova should not expect any kind of justice from the system.
Buresova’s naivete wasn’t unique, and throughout the film’s vast tapestry and amid its array of tense characters is the sense that Palach’s death was the ultimate moment when it dawned on the Czechoslovak middle classes that Democratic Socialism was a canard, and everything they were told is true was not. Burning Bush turns out to be equal parts legal procedural (albeit one trapped in a Kafkaesque no-win nightmare, and rife with skullduggery, double-agent agendas and institutional irrationality) and historical drama, and Holland, schooled in the form by seasons working on HBO’s The Wire and Treme and other nouveau TV projects, knows how to keep the long-form, multi-thread narrative driving forward. But she also knows how to go for the movie set-piece explosions, using actual footage for Palach’s funeral parade (which was attended by a half million Czechs, and turned into a truncheon-pounding, tear-gas-pocked riot), and slowing the action down for the haunting, pensive sequence in which a handful of students enter the morgue with a gruff plasterer for the purpose of covertly creating a death mask from Palach’s corpse.
Something like the Czech Jessica Chastain, Pauhofova, though perhaps too eagerly relying on the Mad Men-esque cigarettes in too many scenes, carries the film with her alarmed gaze, but the zoo of craggy supporting faces around her are also indelibly of the period. The most memorably mysterious might be Docekal (Igor Bares), the honorable detective in charge of the Palach case who, after a gradual awakening about how much he should find out and reveal, drawers his gun, packs up his family and crosses the border (literally, pushing his car) via a faked family vacation. But as the pitiable, defiant lion at the story’s core, Pokorna’s mum is unforgettable—a sweet hausfrau being systematically harassed and crushed by the state, until even smiling at a stranger on a streetcar is an act fraught with tension. Taken as a whole, Holland’s film articulates in graphic detail the combat stress within every autocratic state, between the desires and will of power, and the tolerance of the public, as it is inevitably stretched too far.
So it is that like the court case in Oliver Stone’s JFK, the slander trial against Novy is, in the end, of no consequence, another variety of bread and circuses, allowed by the state to mollify hearts and minds, but climaxing with a preordained verdict. No matter–it’s a four-hour film about a man we do not hear speak and who’s on-screen for only a minute or two total, but who defined the society around him with a single decisive act. The historical moment that belonged to Palach mattered because it lasted long after he’d died–it fomented underground resistance for years afterward, until, as Holland’s coda tells us, the opposition erupted for good in 1989, deliberately on the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death, in a week of violently suppressed protests that set the stage for the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia later that same year.
Cinema is a machine with many uses, but it is unique in its capacity to capture, manifest and recreate history, and since we tend to be amnesiac about the vectors of circumstance that have created the world we inhabit right now, history might be cinema’s most valuable function as well. Prague in the late sixties was one of the epicenters of 20th-century life, a place and time that gave the measure of that mad century and of our capacity for dissidence, and fathoming it is to perhaps know something concrete about institutional power, mass folly and hope. If you’re not Czech or Slovak, the fiery legacy of Palach might be complete news to you, and a thorough, earnest distillation of history like Burning Bush can come as a revelation.
Editor’s note: While Burning Bush is currently streaming on Fandor, it is only viewable in New York at Film Forum for the duration of its theatrical run.