With her miniseries Burning Bush, Agnieszka Holland continues to make accurate, entertaining, politically and culturally charged productions. About a student who sacrificed his life in Prague in January 1969 in the name of the fight against the communist regime, the Burning Bush premiere took place in Prague on the 18th of January 2012.
Tatiana Pauhofová in Agnieszka Holland's "Burnign Bush", photo: Dušan Martinček/HBO
The three-part series of hour-long episodes Burning Bush presents the factual story of Jan Palach, a student of history and political economy at Charles University in Prague. In a protest against the military aggression of the Warsaw Pact against Czechoslovakia in 1968, Palach committed suicide by self-immolation in January 1969. Following his death, the communist regime set out to discredit him and destroy any memory of Palach’s deed. To clear Palach's name and find out the truth, his family hired a lawyer to represent them in a trial against the communist government. Agnieszka Holland’s protagonist is the young lawyer Dagmar Burešová, who spent her life representing dissident opposition leaders then became the first Minister of Justice in free Czechoslovakia.
Holland’s film follows the legal efforts of the Palach family and their lawyer to clear his name in the face of the communist propaganda machine. His story, and that of the lawyer Burešová, is one of basic human values, truth, honour, justice and courage. While images of the burning student only appear in the first shots, the miniseries concentrates on the consequences of his deed and the atmosphere of so-called normalisation in Czechoslovakia following the invasion by the USSR, Poland, East Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria.
With a script by Štěpán Hulíka, Burning Bush is an HBO Europe production, the channel’s "most ambitious, big-budget project to date", in the words of WorldScreen. A TBIvision articles says, "HBO Europe started making original shows six years ago, but its upcoming miniseries Burning Bush marks a new level of budget and ambition." The executive vice president of original programming and production for HBO Central Europe, Antony Root, says,
With Burning Bush we are setting a new standard in terms of the scripted drama that we produce. The audience thinks this is a film about Jan Palach, but it’s really a longer look at events after his death. [...] The subject matter is hugely resonant in the Czech Republic and the wider Central Europe region, but this transcends its locality with universal themes of good versus evil and individuals being morally tested. No other broadcaster or premium cable channel would do it.
For Agnieszka Holland, Jan Palach’s story is of personal importance. As a student in Prague in the 1960s she took part in the student movement and the Prague Spring and knew some of the real-life characters. "I started studying in Czechoslovakia in 1966," she said in an interview for Polish Radio, "back then it was a country whose citizens were unaware of their rights. Stalinism simply never ended there. It only came to an end after the Spring of 1968. The Prague Spring awoke hope for political changes. We all started to take part in it. It was like a continuous celebration. No one remembered about the possibility of an invasion. Budapest and the events of 1956 seemed very distant and people didn’t think about it."
When the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968, crushing the liberalising reforms of Alexander Dubček's government, students involved in political movements feared that their demands put forward during the Prague Spring would not be respected. "It was decided that if the student’s and the political reformer’s demands weren’t taken into consideration", Holland recalls, "then one of the students would set himself on fire. If there is no reaction to the deed, another person would follow. There were a lot of volunteers." To prevent the regime from devaluating such an extreme gesture, volunteers with mental problems or serious personal problems were eliminated. Ten candidates remained, and Jan Palach drew lot number one.
"My deed makes sense but no one should imitate it", he wrote in a farewell letter. "Students should keep their lives to fulfill its goals, so that they can back the fight alive." Following his death he became a symbol of the fight against communism, and the legends surrounding his story fuelled the Czechoslovak opposition.
"There are few stories in which the contemporary viewer can see himself", Holland says. "I wanted to show young viewers what it looked like back then, that those were the heroes choices – between lesser and greater evil. The fact that HBO decided to go with these kinds of productions and is fighting for them to have their own identity is incredibly worthy." Holland has worked for HBO in the U.S., directing episodes of the television series The Wire, Cold Case, The Killing and Treme. Although Burning Bush was conceived as a feature film, she explains that TV was the right platform for this story. "It allowed us to really speak about the reality of the characters in a more epic way, to show their development and complexity. The best TV is like the great 19th-century novel, it allows you to show the totality of the situation, and the miniseries is a very attractive form." Shot in Czech with a Czech and Slovak cast, the show is produced by Czech production firm Nutprodukce.
Agnieszka Holland graduated in 1971 from the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (FAMU) where she studied with Miloš Forman and Ivan Passer. She launched her film career in Poland through her collaborations with Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi, then won prizes and accolades in 1980 for her first feature-length film, Provincial Actors, at the Cannes Film Festival.
Burning Bush is another in her works touching on historical-political topics. Her 1985 film Angry Harvest tells the story of a young Jewish woman who, together with her family, leaps from a train going to a concentration camp in the winter of 1942-43. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Her 1990 film Europa, Europa is about a boy in Nazi Germany who tries to conceal that he is Jewish and joins the Hitler Youth. Europa, Europa received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film and won a Golden Globe Award in the same category. In To Kill a Priest from 1988, she talks about the murder of Father Jerzy Popiełuszka, a young priest who spoke out against the Communist regime in Poland and was killed for it. In Darkness, her 2011 film, tells the story of a small-time Polish crook who becomes a hero for saving Jews during the Holocaust.
Burning Bush will premiere on HBO in the Czech Republic on the 27th of January and plays over subsequent Sundays before being shown throughout the region. In Poland it comes to the small screen on the 3rd of March 2013 at 8:10 pm. On the 21st of February 2013 HBO2 screens a documentary about the making of Burning Bush.
Sources: based on the Polish langauge article by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, Variety, Michigan Theatre, ImDB, TBIvision, WorldScreen, Director’s Guild of America
Editor: Marta Jazowska