The morning of January 16, 1969 seemed like it would be a regular Thursday in Prague, that is if there was anything "regular" about living in a country that had been occupied by the Soviet Union. On that day, 21 year old student Jan Palach decided it was time to remind his countrymen that they were being demoralized by the occupying forces, his mean of protesting was to set himself on fire in the middle of busy Wenceslas Square. Palach's self immolation was part of a collective protest, which warned the government that more young men would repeat his actions until the Soviets left Poland.
Renowned filmmaker Agnieszka Holland was a college student around the time and the event left such an impression on her that she chose to make it the starting point to build the epic Burning Bush. The four hour long film (it was broadcast as a miniseries in Europe) is one of the most impressive chronicles of modern history captured on film and it was rightfully chosen as the Czech submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Holland talked about the making of the film during a press conference at the New York Film Festival.
On being a student in Prague during the era and how she decided to make the film...
Jan Palach was very courageous...he wanted to wake up society. For me it was important to experience the freedom and second to see how quickly the people decided that it doesn't make sense to fight for something that it was so difficult to achieve. The oppression corrupted most of the people and I wanted to show in the story this anatomy of liberalization and this anatomy of courage. This film is not about Jan Palach, but about the consequences it had on families, society and politics.
As Holland expressed Palach is only in the film for a few minutes and the story then follows people who were affected by his actions, including a young lawyer called Dagmar Burešová (Tatiana Pauhofova in a revelatory, star making performance) who decided to sue a Communist officer on grounds of libel, as he suggested Palach's self immolation was a circus act gone wrong. Other characters in the film include Jan's mother (Jaroslava Pokorná), the leader of the student movement (Vojtěch Kotek), Dagmar's husband (Jan Budař) and a detective (Ivan Trojan) all of whom try to seek the truth within a system so corrupt even good intentioned judges are forced to turn the other side to preserve their lives.
The film is HBO Europe's most ambitious film to date and Holland's work in creating a truthful universe is remarkable. She mentioned that most of the documents about the Palach case were destroyed by Communists, who feared his acts would tarnish their historical record, but she was successful in finding some of the documents which allowed her to make justice to these characters.
I wasn't a fan of Holland's last Oscar nominated film, In Darkness, but I was taken aback by the aesthetics, performances and overall power of Burning Bush. Even if it does not get nominated for the Oscar (if it does it could win - it bears similarity to previous winners like The Lives of Others and The Official Story) it should be required viewing for anyone interested in history and how the voices of the people might be the most powerful weapon against tyrants.
Burning Bush plays on 10/04 and 10/09. Director Holland and star Tatiana Pauhofova will be in attendance on 10/04.