Monday, November 25, 2013

Burning Bush (orig. Hořicí Keř) [HBO-Europe Miniseries 2013]

MPAA (UR would be R) (8/10) (10/10)  Fr. Dennis-Zdeněk (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing
CSFD listing* listing* listing* (M. Spáčilová) review* (M. Černá) fact-check/review* review* (M. Kvasnička) review* review*

Burning Bush (orig. Hořicí Keř) [HBO-Europe Miniseries 2013] [IMDb] [CSFD]* []* []* (directed by Polish born Agnieszka Holland [IMDb] [CSFD]* []* []*, screenplay by  Štěpán Hulík [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) played recently as part of a "Czech Showcase" at the 25th Polish Film Festival in America held in Chicago, IL between Nov 8-24. 

The film tells the story of what many Czechs and Slovaks of the time came to consider the greatest and certainly most poignant act of defiance to the Aug 20-21, 1968 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia that crushed the movement of liberalization of Communism that had been occurring there known as The Prague Spring.

Inspired perhaps by similar self-immolations by Buddhist monks in Saigon to protest the Vietnam War, on January 16, 1969, Jan Palach [wikip-ENG] [wikip-CZ]* a history student at Charles University in Prague, set himself on fire by the monument to St. Wenceslas (Patron Saint to the Czechs) on Prague's Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet Invasion/Occupation of his Country.  He died 3 days later and his death remained an open wound throughout the whole of the remainder of the Communist Era in Czechoslovakia.

I remember when visiting Prague as a child and as a teenager being taken by relatives by what had been Jan Palach's grave in Prague's Olšany Cemetery (my mother's family had its family grave at Olšany as well).  Palach's grave had become a site of veneration / quiet protest.  So in the dead of night, the Communists had Palach's body exhumed and cremated and had an old woman with no family buried there in his place.  No matter, mounds of candles and floral tributes remained being placed there in memory of Jan Palach until the end of the Communist Era when his cremains were re-interred there.  I myself am a witness to those candles and flowers placed there in silent protest during the Communist era.

The miniseries here tells the story of Jan Palach in three parts.  The first part begins on the morning of January 16, 1969, showing an anonymous young man carrying a briefcase and a plastic gas-can of liquid over to the side of the rather large statue of / monument to St. Wenceslas on Prague's Wenceslas Square.  He set the briefcase and the gas-can down, apparently rubbed some (oil based?) cream on the upper torso of his body, then poured the gasoline from the gas-can on himself, pulled-out a matchbox from his briefcase, struck a match and set himself ablaze.

The film portrayed bystanders as initially not understanding what was going on.  Palach had appeared to be simply a young man.  Okay he was carrying a gas-can, but he could have been a motorcyclist.  Okay he had rubbed some kind of a cream on his chest.  Perhaps he was an athlete of some sort.  And when he set himself on fire, and yes, began to run about, involuntarily/necessarily in pain (that detail, that he did run around while on fire made sense to me as, knowing the story, I had wondered for a good part of my life what Palach's reaction would have been after he had set himself ablaze) it took a few seconds for bystanders to snap-out of a stunned gaze at this strange sight and respond by trying to put the flames out and call an ambulance for help.

Why did he do it?  Well there was a letter in his briefcase and he left another copy of the same letter in is dorm-room.  The letter stated (and this I did not know before seeing the film) that he was the first of a group of five or six others who had determined that the situation in the country was so grave that they would start immolating themselves, one every five or six days, until their demands were met.  The number one demand was an end to all censorship in the country and _presumably_ the  final demand was an end to the Soviet occupation.

This was pretty terrifying stuff.  Almost NOBODY believed that a campaign of self-immolations was going to bend the will of the Soviet occupiers, and yet almost all the Czechoslovak authorities in Prague (TO SAY  NOTHING OF PARENTS) feared that there could be a lot of dead young people as a result.

What the heck to do?  The first part of this miniseries was about the fevered days between Jan Palach's immolation and his death three days later, when all of Czechoslovak society came together -- from the most sympathetic to Palach's act (idealistic/patriotic students) to the Czechoslovak authorities who had visions of mounds of dead young people while the Soviet Army which had by then largely retired to the outskirts of the city coming back into Prague to simply crush everything, to frankly terrified PARENTS across the land -- to invent a "noble lie": Palach from his death bed instructing those who would be considering following him in this path of self-immolation TO NOT DO SO, telling them that from his perspective _now_, LYING IN A BURN WARD WITH LITTLE CHANCE OF RECOVERY and EVEN IF HE DID, WITH LITTLE CHANCE OF EVER LEADING A NORMAL LIFE, this was NOT the path to go.

Interestingly, the Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny (Lidovky) reporting on the historicity of this miniseries* notes that THIS MESSAGE WAS ACTUALLY BROADCAST ON CZECHOSLOVAK TELEVISION at the time, but by Prague Student Union leader (and friend of Palach) Lubomír/Luboš Holeček.* The miniseries had Palach's "message" delivered by a girlfriend/acquaintance of Palach's, in the series named Hana Čížková (and played by Emma Smetana [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*).  Why the change?  There is a character based in good part on Luboš Holeček in the series named Ondřej Trávníček (played by Vojtěch Kotek [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*).  However, while Luboš Holeček* himself died, his wife of that time lives to this day and there were some disagreements between how the series-makers wanted to portray him and his wife of the time wished that he be remembered.  So the film-makers chose to invent a character largely based on Holeček* but sufficiently different from him to not cause problems with Holeček's widow.

Much of the first episode focuses on Jan Palach's family about how his brother Jiří (played by Petr Strach [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) and mother Libuše (played by Jaroslava Pokorná [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) found out about Jan's self-immolation.  Not altogether surprisingly, he hadn't told them a word of his plans.  More painfully, he had left no special/separate note for them.

The first episode ended with Jan Palach's death and funeral, which naturally in the politically explosive climate of Prague at the time, produced a massive if temporary outpouring of grief.

The second episode began some months later with a young copycat Jan Zajíc, a teenager/secondary schooler, immolating himself again by the monument to St Wenceslas on Prague's Wenceslas Square.  Zajíc's case was hardly reported and authorities and the state media tried very hard and largely succeeded in separating his case from that of Palach's.  In as much as it was mentioned in the Czechoslovak (Communist controlled) Press at all, Zajíc's suicide was simply reported as that of a distraught young teen.

But by this time, Czechoslovakia, still occupied, (Soviet troops, if perhaps somewhat discretely, remained on Czech and Slovak soil until after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989) was now quite well on its way toward post-invasion "Normalization" (what an Orwellian term...).  And at a meeting of Communist officials in the provincial town of Ceská Lípa, a certain delegate named Vilém Nový (played by Martin Huba [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) denounced Jan Palach as having been (1) part of a radically right-wing group of extremists, (2) in contact with and influenced by foreign agents and (3) in any case duped into an immolation that was supposed to have been faked (that he was supposed to have set himself on fire using a substance called "cold fire" supposedly used by circus acts and at the last minute _somebody_ had switched the "cold fire" liquid with actual gasoline).

Well, Czechoslovakia nearing the one year anniversary of the Soviet invasion may have been well on its path toward "Normalization" but it was not there yet: Palach's mother and brother DECIDE TO FILE AN ANTI-DEFAMATION SUIT against Vilém Nový.  And they come to a lawyer named Dagmar Burešová [wiki-CZ]* (played by Tatiana (Táňa) Pauhofová [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) to represent them.

Now much of the drama of the second part of the miniseries centered on the miniseries' posited initial reluctance of  Ms. Burešová J.Dr. [wiki-CZ]* to take-on the case.  And one would certainly understand why a Czechoslovak lawyer at the time would have been reluctant to take-on such a case.  It was almost certainly going to end in a loss and it opened one up, AND ONE'S FAMILY UP, for all kinds of retribution.  Yet, interestingly, that's not how her husband Radim Bureš (played in the film by Jan Budař  [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) actually remembers things according to the historicity-checking article by Lidove Noviny (Lidovky).  Instead, he remembers his wife defending all kinds of politically persecuted people at the time, including the Palach family.  So he doesn't believe that she wavered at all.

Yet one year on after the invasion, Czechoslovak society was being purged of those unwilling to adapt to new realities on the ground (with the Soviet fraternal brothers keeping their troops on Czechoslovak soil and certainly "close enough" to Prague to make sure that "things went their way.")

The second part of the miniseries ends with the aftermath of the street demonstrations marking the one year anniversary of the Soviet Invasion and students as well as various intellectuals/professionals learning the hard way that their participation in such "anti-socialist actions" would hence-forth result in heavy sanction: In the summary expulsion of students from university for participating in demonstrations, and in the termination of employment for those professional who refused loyalty oaths to the post-invasion regime.  (Some of the best educated window-washers and street-cleaners in the world in the 1970 and 80s were found in Prague).

Disgusted with the aftermath of the first anniversary street demonstrations, the series has a Prague police officer Mjor Jireš (played by Ivan Trojan [IMDb] [CSFD]* []*) putting his revolver into the drawer of his desk at work and in the next scene driving his family cross the border to Austria.  Like most Czechs and Slovaks of the time, he had been appalled by the Soviet Invasion of his country, but he was also a policeman.  So in the first episode we saw him feverishly working on the Palach case trying to discover if there really was a cell of students like Palach set on immolating themselves for their country - IN ORDER TO DISSUADE THEM FROM DOING SO.  And unable to find said group, it is his department that finds at least Palach's acquaitance/girlfriend to put her on camera read the invented message do dissuade would be copycats from doing the same as Palach did.  Yet, seeing students now being thrown out of school (their futures distroyed) for simply protesting against the Soviet Invasion (that everybody opposed), he had enough.   And like 100,000 Czechs and Slovaks following the invasion, he packed-up his family and said goodbye to the country.

The third part of the miniseries focuses on the preparation for the trial and then the trial itself.  And it felt very much like Oliver Stone's JFK [1991].  The "fix" was obviously in, and everybody involved in the prosecution was being harrassed.  Lawyer Dagmar Berešová's husband, a doctor, lost his job at a Prague hospital and the only job he could find was at a clinic in the outlying provincial town of Beroun a long drop from working at "Prague General Hosp."

The Palach family, of course, faced worse.  Mom, Libuše, found herself in and out of psychiatric institutions (and remember here that these would be are Communist Era mental institutions, not necessarily interested making one better, but more in keeping troublesome people down.  Refer to Alois Nebel [2011] to better understand).  And Palach's brother Jiří finds himself under increasing pressure by the authorities to "do something" regarding Jan Palach's grave, that is, to move Palach's remains from Prague.  And eventually, as I wrote above, Jan Palach's remains were dug up and cremated and a completely unrelated person buried in his place (Again, I myself am a witness to some of this part of the story).

The trial, when it gets to trial of course, ends up a farce.  Vilém Nový is vindicated in the ANTI-DEFAMATION SUIT AGAINST HIM despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Lawyer  Berešová got in her hands both the text of  Nový's speech (which then went missing from her office just before trial ...) and then even found A RECORDING OF IT BEING GIVEN at the Česká Lípa gathering.  Finally, Comrade Nový's claims in his speech that Palach actually wanted to "fake" his immolation made no sense.  Why would one want to do that?  What would be the point of _faking_ a self-immolation?

No matter.  The only "truth" that counted at the time, was "that which serves the working class ..." (hence that which served the Communist Party, hence ultimately that which served those allied once more with the Soviet Occupiers).

Nový went free and arguably received an apology from the Court for having had _his reputation_ questioned...
Interestingly the Lidove Noviny (Lidovky) fact-checking article notes that the trial was actually even a bigger farce than portayed in the film.  This is because the Palachs were not the only ones claiming defamation by Nový.  Writer Pavel Kohout and legendary Czech Olympic distance runner Emil Zátopek were involved in the case as well (and if I understand it, were claiming that they were defamed by Vilém Nový as well).

But the series ends with a reminder that no matter what the Communist authorities did, the memory of Jan Palach and his self-immolation in protest to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia could not be erased, that it remained seared into the memory of the Czech and Slovak peoples.  Indeed, the series noted that demostrations in Czechoslovakia in January, 1989 in commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of Jan Palach's death began a year of ever increasing demonstrations in Prague until the Communist regime fell in November of that year.

The series also noted that after the fall of the Communist regime,  Dagmar Burešová J.Dr. [wiki-CZ]* became the country's first post-Communist Minister of Justice.

Great film!

ADDENDUM:  Among the Czech language reviews* that I included above is one that comes from a youth oriented website named  It comes from Brno, the Czech Republic's "second city" and one that's become something of a "college town" there in recent years.

The complaint of the site's reviewer was not so much against the mini-series itself but rather that "the current generation appears doomed to see little else than one presentation after another about the awful years under Communism."  I include the review* here because (1) Palach himself was a young person, a student when he sacrificed himself in this way for his country, and I do wonder if Palach was a young person today if he'd actually sympathize/agree with's reviewer, and (2) I actually do understand and sympathize with the complaint (to a point). 

Indeed, when I do go to film festivals here in Chicago that feature films from the former Communist Bloc, I try very hard to find some truly POST-COMMUNIST films in addition to the historical films.  And arguably I prefer the "newer themed films."  Indeed, I've told plenty of friends over the years that growing up, "Hitler and Stalin were uninvited guests at pretty much every one of my family's gatherings."  Still, history is history and we can't really escape from it.  But it's been my hope that we can grow-through the past to create things that are better and new.  Heck, I'm a Catholic priest, talk about "rooted in the past."  But past need not be everything.  One can grow toward a better future without simply taking an axe to what was before.

* Foreign language webpages are most easily translated using Google's Chrome Browser.

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