Jan Palach’s role on the world stage was brief. On January 16th, 1969, five months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he committed suicide by self-immolation in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. The political and cultural thaw of Prague Spring, a near-revolution of peaceful reform, had been destroyed by Leonid Brezhnev’s tanks, and the youth of Czechoslovakia were heartbroken. Palach’s shocking protest was covered up by the Soviet-supported Communist regime and then honored by the Velvet Revolution twenty years later. His unsettling, powerful act and its immediate aftermath are the subject of Agnieszka Holland’s HBO mini-series, Burning Bush.
With its total running time of 234 minutes, one might think that the Oscar-nominated Polish director would take some time to build up to Palach’s sacrifice. In fact, she starts with it. The first scene, a bravura accomplishment of instant tension and frenzied resolution, is like the pistol start to a political horse race with a live bullet. It also means that Palach himself is a ghost haunting the proceedings rather than a principal character. In his stead, the protagonist of Burning Bush is Dagmar Buresová (Tatiana Pauhofová), a lawyer who finds herself caught up in the furor of that uncertain January. Eventually she ends up representing Palach’s mother and brother when they sue a high-ranking government official for libel. She spends the bulk of parts 2 and 3 searching for evidence of the misstatements made by this shady politician, frustrated by the intransigence of the government, thwarted by the secret police and inevitably discovering more than she ever intended.
Dagmar is like Agnieszka, the filmmaker protagonist of Andrzej Wajda’s masterpieces Man of Marble and Man of Iron. Yet while Krystyna Janda’s cool veneer works perfectly in the context of Poland’s still-governing Communist dictatorship, Holland needs something a bit different from her lead actress. Dagmar’s dedicated and fiery pursuit of truth is the same as Agnieszka’s, but her husband and children allow her moments of quiet vulnerability. It takes a great deal of time to develop, but Pauhofová perfectly captures the intersection of representative victimhood and uniquely dedicated heroism.
Holland is searching for truth on a grand scale. Aside from the opening credits, which pay homage to the vigorous and youthful charm of the Czechoslovak New Wave, this is not about the Prague Spring. Rather, it is a panoramic look at the way the authoritarian systems of power were reimposed on the political and cultural life of the nation. Burning Bush focuses in part on Dagmar’s fight with the corrupt judicial system, but also the emotional journey of Palach’s family. The Youth Movement, which attempts to capitalize on Palach’s protest and renew a struggle for political freedom, is another prominent part of the story. Holland balances all of these elements with care, making sure to show all of the ramifications of the subtle, insidious reinstatement of order.
The scope of Burning Bush absolutely necessitates its full 234 minutes. Holland is essentially filming a nation being put back to sleep, slowly and deliberately. Such a thing does not happen all at once. While the New York Film Festival has chosen to show it in a single screening, it is very clearly built for a three-episode format. It’s important to take the time to spread it out, to let it sink in. The intense opening scene of the second part deserves to be just that, an opening. Hopefully it will air on HBO in the U.S., especially now that its TV run in Europe has disqualified it as the Czech submission to the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.