Agnieszka Holland’s “Burning Bush” (“Ho?ící Ke?”) could prove one of the most politically charged miniseries of the year. It depicts the fallout of Jan Palach’s self-martyring protest of the demoralization of the Czech people caused by the Soviet occupation that followed the Prague Spring.
On January 16, 1969, five months after the tanks rolled in, the 2o-year-old Charles University history student doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire in Prague’s Wenceslas Square; he died three days later. The impact of the news images reverberated throughout the West.
The HBO Europe miniseries will air in 15 European countries starting Sunday and have its international premiere at this month's Rotterdam Film Festival. It is not clear yet if or when HBO will broadcast it in the United States.
Written by 28-year-old Št?pán Hulik, the series starts with Palach’s self-immolation and incorporates news footage of his emotional funeral, which was attended by thousands. It then follows the strenuous efforts of the lawyer Dagmar Burešová to defend his mother in a trial against the Communist regime, which tried to discredit Palach’s sacrifice.
Burešová (who is played by Tatiana Pauhofová) defended about 65 people removed from their jobs or otherwise persecuted by the Communists during the Normalization era, among them Milan Kundera and Ivan Medek. After the 1989 revolution, she served for six months as the Czech Republic’s Justice Minister.
Holland’s own politicization was inevitable. Her paternal grandparents died in the Warsaw Ghetto; her journalist mother was a member of the Polish underground who took part in the Warsaw Uprising; her journalist father was probably murdered by the KGB during interrogation.
Best known for “Angry Harvest” (1985), “Europa, Europa” (1992), and “Olivier, Olivier” (1992) – troubling humanist films about diaplacement – and more recently for “In Darkness” (2011), Holland has worked for HBO before, directing episodes of “The Wire” and “Treme.” “Burning Bush” is a better fit: at the time of Palach’s protest, Holland was a student radical at Prague’s FAMU film school. During the suppression of the Prague Spring, she spent six weeks in solitary confinement for spreading materials supporting the Dub?ek government’s reforms.
In an interview with the New York Times in 1993, she spoke of the Prague Spring as her most “joyous”time and the subsequent clampdown as her most “pessimistic.”
“It was a society in which hope was broken, a society of disintegration, resignation, fear, and atomization,” she recently told Radio Prague. “What I was seeing… you know, it was my first experience of this kind, so it stayed in me very deeply, as a deeper truth about the strength of the society – how long people can fight for something and in which circumstances, and when they give up.”
Emma Smetana, the 24-year-old news actress and TV anchor who has a small role as Palach’s supposed girlfriend in “Burning Bush,” had personal reasons for being invested in the film. “My grandparents knew Jan Palach, because they were in the same high school and they were in the same generation,” she told the radio station. “So the whole heroic act he did – and I think there’s absolutely no doubt that’s what it was – was a bit relativized by them, in the sense that they talked about him as a quiet, discrete, not particularly shining personality. They said that they almost wouldn’t notice him actually at school, and that he was an average guy.
“I think that actually reinforces the impression that I have of this act – that heroes are not born as heroes. It’s somehow the general context that pushes some normal, plain, ordinary people into acts that are then shown by history to be incredible and exceptional.”