Director Agnieszka Holland, seen above with ‘Burning Bush’ leading lady Tatiana Pauhofová (right), studied at Prague’s famous film school FAMU during the time when the events portrayed in the mini-series took place
A new three-part TV mini-series helmed by the internationally renowned Polish film director Agnieska Holland will take as its starting point the self-immolation of Jan Palach on Prague’s Wenceslas Square in January 1969. Palach, 20, committed that desperate act in protest at how Czechoslovak society had resigned itself to the Soviet-led occupation that began the previous August.
“I was a student at FAMU [film school] in Prague at the time, and what Palach did left a deep impression on me,” Holland, 63, said (in excellent Czech) at a press conference for “Burning Bush,” which is being produced by the local branch of HBO. “I knew some of the people involved in those events well. For me it was a formative social and human experience. In a certain way, it shaped my interest in the world.”
The director, who in May 1969 was imprisoned for six weeks by Communist Czechoslovakia’s StB secret police for the illegal distribution of printed materials, had been in Prague when the Warsaw Pact tanks rolled in and says she, too, was disappointed at how quickly the spirit of resistance and unity sparked by the invasion dissipated.
YouTube Jan Palach’s funeral in January 1969 became the biggest protest since Soviet-led troops had entered Czechoslovakia the previous summer. However, it was something of a last gasp as hard-line Communists re-established control.
“Burning Bush” was penned by Štěpán Hulík, 27, who says it is intended more as a portrait of Czechoslovak society in the aftermath of Palach’s death than the story of an individual. “It shows that at a certain moment something gave way in society, and the majority ceased believing in the ideals that they’d had six months previously,” he told Czech Position.
As for why that occurred, the young screenwriter says he is reluctant to get into the thorny area of national character. “But we Czechs have over the centuries been through many such moments, defeats, or moments when we had to adapt to the situation,” he says. “I’m kind of afraid that it’s something within us. The moment we see that things are rapidly deteriorating, we kind of give up the fight a bit, maybe earlier than other nations would.”
Opinion still divided
Perhaps surprisingly, the HBO project will be the first time filmmakers have tackled one of the most dramatic events of the Communist era. Historian Petr Blažek, co-editor of the collection Jan Palach ‘69 and an expert advisor to the filmmakers, says that may be because it was so difficult for many to comprehend.
“The form of protest was so extreme that it divides Czech society. The range of viewpoints is very broad,” Blažek told Czech Position. Some, he says, see Jan Palach as a person who made the ultimate sacrifice for others and look for parallels with figures such as Jesus Christ. Others view him as “a psychopath who didn’t know what he was doing.”
Palach dies at the beginning of the first episode of “Burning Bush,” with the serial’s main focus falling on the experiences of those close to him in the 12-month period that followed. Central to the story is a legal battle sparked when senior Communist Party MP Vilém Nový repeated a bizarre claim that had appeared on leaflets published as part of an StB smear campaign.
Referring to him as a “Western agent,” Nový said that Palach had been misled by friends into dousing himself with a fluid that would produce a “non-burning flame,” but the protest action had somehow gone wrong. Of course, no such liquid existed.
“Everybody knew that it was nonsense, but they just shrugged their shoulders. However, Palach’s mother decided to sue Nový for defamation, and hired the young lawyer Dagmar Burešová,” says Hulík. “She knew she wouldn’t win, and that involvement in such a lawsuit would put herself in danger. But she still took on the case.”
Happy ending of sorts
Burešová, now in her mid 80s, defended many dissidents during the Communist era. When the regime collapsed at the end of 1989, she became Czechoslovakia’s minister of justice, which Hulík describes as the story’s “happy ending.” (Jan Palach’s remains, which the Communists had spirited away from Prague’s Olšany Cemetery in 1973 when his grave became a shrine, were returned in 1990. The following year, President Václav Havel bestowed on him and Jan Zajíc – who burned himself to death in February 1969 – the Order of T. G. Masaryk, first rank.)
The central character of the lawyer will be played by the glamorous Slovak actress Tatiana Pauhofová, 28, who says she was surprised to discover that several of her acquaintances were unfamiliar with the name Palach. A number of other leading local actors have also landed roles, including Karel Roden (who starred with Pauhofová in the Czech version of hit HBO serial “In Treatment”), Martin Huba, Ivan Trojan, and Vojtěch Kotek.
As for the title of the mini-series, Hulík says he believes it carries great expressive weight even in a country known for its relatively high levels of atheism, where many are unlikely to catch the Biblical reference. “It’s a bush that burned without burning. That struck me as being really symbolic of the case of Palach because he died, but his legacy lived on.”
Shooting on “Burning Bush” will begin in the Czech capital in early March, soon after Agnieska Holland returns from the Academy Awards in L.A., where her latest picture “In Darkness” is in contention for the Oscar for best foreign language picture.
The mini-series, which its producers say may subsequently be shown in other countries in the region, will be seen on Czech TV screens some time next year.
— Ian Willoughby is a Prague-based freelance journalist