The 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, putting an end to the fabled ‘Prague Spring’ and Premier Aleksandr Dubček’s ‘socialism with a human face’, was a landmark in post-war political history: a moment of crisis in which communists the world over tore up or threw away their party cards in disgust. It seemed to echo 1956 and the crushing of Hungary, another Soviet satellite, but was quite distinctive to its time and place. Czechoslovaks were instructed by their government to offer no resistance, and there were few casualties – no lynchings of secret policemen, no decimated buildings, no Molotov cocktails hurled at Russian tanks. This was a battle in which the invader was fought not with guns but switched street-signs, in which miniskirted girls tormented the young Russian soldiers with nothing more than a deranging glimpse of thigh. In the scale of communist atrocities, compared to Budapest’s mounds of dead, it seems almost mild.
The aftermath, however, was anything but. As the grim process of ‘normalisation’ got under way – a time when Czechs and Slovaks were purged, smeared, and sacked from their jobs unless utterly compliant – the entire country seemed to be suffering from a nightmare. In January 1969, five months after the invasion, 20 year-old history student Jan Palach travelled across town to Wenceslas Square, poured two buckets of petrol over himself, and struck a match. In the letter he left behind – denouncing his country’s occupation – he declared himself ‘Torch Number One’, promising that others would follow his example. He died a few days later.
These are the events around which The Burning Bush (2013), HBO’s Czech language miniseries directed by one time Wajda-collaborator Agnieszka Holland, is based. Written by 28-year-old Stepan Hulik, it’s not a conventional bio-pic of Jan Palach, showing in time-honoured style the formation of a modern saint. Instead the series, in a bleakly shocking opening sequence, begins with his self-immolation, and the four hours that follow are not so much concerned with his death as the moral drama unleashed by it. Running scared, panicked into preventing more suicides, the authorities quickly concoct an absurd lie to suggest Palach’s death was unintentional, a matter less of heroism than of fatal stupidity. This lie, the outrage it does to the Palach family and their subsequent attempts to prosecute it are the spine of the series, in which we will see the main characters – a young lawyer and her partner, a secret policeman, a student activist and the father of an implicated girl – make wildly different choices and take very different paths: giving in to coercion, standing up to it, foregoing their careers or losing their souls. Yet the series, to its credit, withholds easy judgements: visibly benign people give in to bullying and blackmail, characters who start off bad turn out to be redeemable, and the film’s central traitor, one who will stop at nothing to collaborate, does so for the most human of reasons. Even the story’s braver characters seem to have a sense of shame at their own powerlessness, the cockroach culture of half-lies and half-truths in which they are forced to operate. Yet within the series stated and restated theme – of what separates us from animals and their desire to survive at all costs – they have their own qualified moral victory.
The Burning Bush does not look like a television miniseries, and Holland’s cinematic sense is visible throughout. It has a wonderful feel to it, reminiscent of early Krysztof Kieslowski films, photographed in greys, beiges, dimly lit rooms, as though the whole country, not just the Palach family, is suffering from a momentous held-in grief. The entire cast seem to rise to the occasion: Tatiana Pauhofová, as the lawyer who against all self-interest takes on the Palachs’ case, perfectly shows the inner conflicts, the self-doubt and fear that never quite leave her at the path she has taken, and the knowledge of how bitterly her family will suffer. As Palach’s older brother Jiri, desperately trying to hold things together, Peter Stach is always sympathetic, and Jaroslava Pokorná, superbly convincing as his broken mother, shows the terrible price martyrs’ families have to pay. In fact, families are the heart of the series – the retreat they provide in times of public anguish, the balance between responsibilities to one’s relatives and those to the wider world, and the terrible betrayals that too much loyalty to either can force us to.
HBO are to be congratulated not only for their brave choice of subject matter, but also of Agnieszka Holland as director: a woman who lived through the period, experienced state persecution at first hand, and whose treatment of it rings absolutely true. The Burning Bush swept the board at the Czech Lions awards earlier this year, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an intensely moving piece of television, among the director’s very best work, and deserves the widest possible audience it can get.
_______________________________________________________________________Agnieska Holland’s The Burning Bush (2013) is available on import from Amazon, at £29.95.