Fighting against oppression requires unshakable conviction and the notion that regardless of what may come, the reason behind ones actions are pure. Few people overcome apathy and indifference in order to put it all on the line for the right cause. This film is about one of those rare individuals. Though extreme, the self-less quality of his actions is undeniable.
On January 16th, 1969 history student Jan Palach set himself of fire as a form of rebellion against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Even tough the young man survived the event for a few more days before passing away, what he set in motion would become a symbol of resistance for decades
to come for the Czech people. Not only did his actions demonstrate unbearable desperation, but complete commitment for what he believed in.
Perhaps what worried the vicious government the most was his announcement via a letter, that if freedom of expression was not reestablished, another student or “torch” will repeat his deed, and then another, and another until their demands were granted. Acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland’s ambitious film “Burning Bush” aims to honor Palach and others who sacrifice their lives, as well as to expose the corrosive nature of the malevolent regime.
During its extensive running time of almost four hours - it was originally ambitioned as a mini series - this historical drama analyses the ramifications of the inciting incident from diverse, often conflicting, vantage points. The guiding storyline that connects the diverse sources is the investigation led by Dagmar Burešová (Tatiana Pauhofová), a feisty female lawyer who is determined to uphold the patriotic act carried out by the young man. In the first segment, the film focuses on Palach’s family and the cover-up of the student’s true intentions by the communist government officials - who act on behalf of the occupying Soviet rule.
Their efforts go as far as to create a fake letter in which Palach presumably attempts to persuade others not to go through with their promise. In spite of this, Palach is immortalized as a hero by his supporters and deemed as an ideological threat by the oppressors. Burešová is well aware of the fraudulent and manipulative tactics employed to submit those who speak up. Other students soon begin to mobilize, while the lead official investigator tries to find the names of the prospective “torches” in order to stop them.
A few months after, controversy revolving the case returns when a higher up party official Vilém Nový (Martin Huba) publicly claims Jan Palach didn’t mean to
kill himself but hat Western troublemakers tricked him into doing so by replacing harmless so-called “cold fire” chemicals with gasoline. Such statement drives Jan’s
tortured mother to call for a lawsuit, and she wants Burešová to represent her.
Making use of the time, Holland’s appropriately develops each of the numerous characters providing insight into their motivations for betraying, lying, or remaining neutral in the face of life threatening accusations. Mothers, husbands, and even those benefited by impunity eventually must question their role in the corrupted system. In the meantime, the omnipotent government poisons its citizens with rampant fear to protect their interest and maintain order at the expense of legality.
As whole, “Burning Bush” is a riveting and thought provoking epic cinematic accomplishment that mixes a courtroom mystery with the historical accounts of
the aftermath of the incident. Visually, Holland employs archive footage to which she seamlessly incorporates her fictional reenactments. Her ensemble cast, with Pauhofová standing out, understands they are playing people who were coerced into being part of a structure that allows for little discussion. With their lives on the line, and as the lawyer's partner cleverly mentions, "survival instinct" tends to overrule morality. Therefore, it is difficult to judge any of the characters based on how they react to the circumstances, clear-cut logic couldn't exist in a country were "smuggling" Rock & Roll records was considered a crime. With Holland's expert direction and HBO's well-known cinematic caliber, the film captures the intrigue and
tension that prevailed in the gloomy atmosphere of the turbulent period. A time in which for those willing to perpetrate such terrifying demonstration, self-immolation to ignite resistance became the only viable path. Nevertheless, an underscoring optimism manages to keep those looking for justice going.
Just as the Biblical mythology behind the flame that can’t be extinguished, the
burning bush that Palach became served as hopeful reminder that people do have power within them to induce change. Holland’s film is a ravishing
adaptation of such powerful ideas.
"Burning Bush" opens theatrically today June 11th, at the Film Forum in New York City