HBO drama Burning Bush delivers first film treatment of Palach story

'Burning Bush', photo: HBO

The new HBO miniseries Hořící Keř, or Burning Bush, receives a gala premiere at a Prague cinema on Wednesday night and kicks off on TV screens next Sunday. Over 23 years after the fall of communism, it is, remarkably, the first film treatment of one of the most dramatic moments of modern Czech history – the self-immolation of Jan Palach in January 1969.

Photo: HBO
Palach, a Charles University student, carried out the radical action in protest against the Soviet occupation that had begun five months earlier and society’s acceptance of it.

Burning Bush was written by Štěpán Hulík, who is 28. The screenwriter says he first hear about Jan Palach’s self-sacrifice as a child – when the student’s remains were returned to Prague in 1990 – and has had a great interest in the story ever since.

“His act fascinates me really a lot, and very profoundly. I think his act was an act of unselfish love, which he was able to show to all people.

“And I think it could be something like a challenge for us. I mean, if Jan Palach was able to sacrifice his own life, then we also could be able to do something to change something in society, to change something in the world around us. This I think is something that I think will be with us forever, this legacy.”

Are there any particular myths about Jan Palach? Or do people have misunderstandings about what he did and who he was?

“Yes. Very often it’s said that he was just a crazy young man and there is no need to tell you that I absolutely disagree with this statement.

“But in our movie we were trying not to convince people that Jan Palach was either a hero or just crazy. We wanted to leave this question to people, and to let them answer for themselves.”

Agnieszka Holland,  photo: CTK
For HBO Europe’s biggest production to date, the company turned to Agnieszka Holland, who has previously helmed episodes of the hit HBO dramas The Wire and Treme.

The Oscar-nominated Polish director could offer a unique perspective, having been a politically engaged student at Prague’s FAMU film school in the period when the three-part drama is set.

Holland – who was herself briefly jailed for distributing illicit materials – recalls the backdrop to Palach’s desperate act in the post-invasion period.

“It was a society in which hope was broken, a society of disintegration, resignation, fear and atomisation. 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.”

TV news anchor and actress Emma Smetana, 24, has a small role in Burning Bush, playing a girl believed to have been Palach’s girlfriend. Smetana – who says people today are not in a position to judge his actions – has a more personal connection to his story than most people of her age.

Jan Palach
“My grandparents knew Jan Palach, because they were in the same high school and they were in the same generation. So the whole heroic act that he did – and I think there’s absolutely no doubt that that’s what it was – was a bit relativised by them, in the sense that they talked him about 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.”

Burning Bush begins with Jan Palach pouring two buckets of petrol over himself and setting himself alight at the top of Wenceslas Square. There are no close-ups of the actor’s face, allowing the makers to use actual images of the student and to skilfully incorporate footage of his massive funeral.

The miniseries maps the aftermath of his death, principally the legal efforts of Palach’s mother to fight a lie put about by a Communist MP. He claimed the student had been duped by Western agents and believed he was using a flammable fluid that would not harm him.

'Burning Bush',  photo: HBO
The real hero of Burning Bush is Dagmar Burešová, the Palach family’s lawyer, who paid a price personally for representing them. There is a moving moment at the end when a title informs the audience that the brave Burešová had gone on to become Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist minister of justice.

Writer Štěpán Hulík explains why the series focuses on the lawyer’s fight.

“Of course, usually when you try to make a biography, you tell the story of your hero from the very beginning and then through his or her whole life to the end. But in this case I was sure that this approach wouldn’t help us. It wouldn’t allow us to say what’s most important about Jan Palach’s act.

“So when I realised there was another story – that of lawyer Dagmar Burešová – I realised that from her perspective we would be really able to tell Jan’s story in the most interesting and surprising, maybe peculiar, way.

“What is really important to me is that in some way Dagmar Burešová was, I think, someone who took over the torch…the legacy of Jan Palach. She was continuing in the things that he was trying to do.”

'Burning Bush',  photo: HBO
While Burešová took on the Communist authorities, Burning Bush shows how many around her were defeated by them, quietly accepting their fates in the “normalisation” period that saw hard-line Communists reassert their control in the wake of the Soviet invasion. Agnieszka Holland, whose husband is Slovak, describes the atmosphere then.

“It was a very, very sad country. People really didn’t have a hope that change could come. So they accepted it. They made all of these pro-Communist gestures, but after work, at home, they cursed the regime, but not very loudly, and drank beer, and so on.”

One character, a lawyer colleague of Burešová’s, is blackmailed into betraying her by an StB agent who presents him with a stark choice: collaborate, or your daughter will not be allowed to study. I asked the director whether the audience ought to feel sympathy with those forced to compromise.

“It’s not a question of sympathy, but a question of understanding, and the question you ask yourself: What would I do in those circumstances? You can ask yourself the question: What I would do? Or what is really important to me. How much am I able to sacrifice?

“I think that every generation has this test to pass. In times that are not heroic…sometimes of course, you know, in times of heroic struggles and when the whole nation or society is together, that is in some way easier…but the truth about ourselves comes in those quiet times.”

'Burning Bush',  photo: HBO
Compared to for instance making other HBO shows, like The Wire or Treme, did you feel a great sense of responsibility making this film, because you have to stick to the historical truth to a certain degree, whereas with The Wire, say, it’s just a fiction?

“There’s some amount of fiction here. We decided to mix fiction with the real story. But it was fictionalised. Half of the characters are real and half are compilations of real characters.

“You know I felt responsibility as a non-Czech person who, on such a scale, is telling this story. Because the only thing existing before it was TV documentaries. So it was a responsibility in that I could be attacked by the nation for screwing their national subject [laughs].

“On the other hand, they had twenty-something years to tell the story, and if they didn’t, why not me? My experience – both my Czechoslovak experience and my life experience after – made me, I think, a person who had the right to tell this story without any kind of complexes.”

The four-hour-plus drama will get its international premiere at the Rotterdam Film Festival next week and will be screened by HBO in numerous European states, primarily those which, like the Czech Republic, have a communist past.

'Burning Bush',  photo: HBO
Some viewers at a preview screening in Prague last week felt that the subject matter had perhaps been ever so slightly simplified to make it more palatable to an international audience.

Be that as it may, Burning Bush is a highly impressive and occasionally moving miniseries with extremely high production values, fantastic acting and excellent camerawork, with many scenes filmed at the actual locations where the events portrayed occurred.