A Single Spark: Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush

Burning Bush is a deeply complex film, or television series; its formal identity depends on how one consumes it, and this will inevitably expand or retract its complications in different ways. In its most basic terms, this is a film about the end of the 1968 “Prague Spring,” the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and, in particular, the social and political shockwaves that followed the self-immolation of university student Jan Palach, a gesture of protest that stunned the nation. Burning Bush was commissioned by HBO Europe and originally broadcast as a three-part miniseries on the network’s Czech channel in January of last year. (This was most likely timed to coincide with the 45th anniversary of the election of liberal socialist Alexander Dub?ek, an event that many historians mark as the de facto kickoff of the Prague Spring.)

The series, scripted by Stepan Hulik and directed by Polish journeyman Agnieszka Holland, is being released theatrically in the U.S., and is receiving its VOD release through Fandor. As always, this shift from what we might assume to be an original conception – a limited run television series – into a semi-theatrical object or experience, creates certain differences and expectations in reception. On a purely formal level, Burning Bush is clearly a work for television. Not only does each of its three parts begin with a theme song and opening credits. The final five minutes of parts one and two are markedly different that the material that precedes them. The editing accelerates; Holland checks us in with nearly all the characters in rapid succession; and there is a general sense of our being handed hinge material that is designed to provide a memory blast, in case we don’t see the next part of Burning Bush for another 24 hours or more. Watching the three parts in quick succession (in other words, screening Burning Bush as if it were a four-hour theatrical feature), these televisual tics tend to stand out.

This is not intended as a criticism, but merely as a description. A lot of film writing forges ahead, operating on the assumption that some known, solid thing called “film” still exists – not even celluloid per se, but the stable experience of viewing a two-hour narrative object expressly designed for theatrical consumption. More and more, the aesthetic entities we confront are hybrid works, like Burning Bush (or Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce, or Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, or Olivier Assayas’ Carlos, or Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Penance), which manifest themselves through many forms and many lives. Burning Bush arrives theatrically after appearances at last year’s Telluride, Toronto, and New York Film Festivals, where it garnered significant acclaim. There is no question that Holland has produced a major work. But it’s also a work whose form speaks to the current instability of previously known forms.

These are business considerations as much as creative ones, if not more so. They are worth thinking about as material constraints, as well as possibilities. It would be misguided, or simply in poor taste, to try to argue for some homology to lived politics here. However, we can note that Burning Bush is a project that does a few rather crucial things in the name of historical excavation. First, it returns to a very specific moment in 20th century geopolitics and popular dissent, a period of not quite one calendar year when it appeared as though, to borrow a shopworn but appropriate phrase, “another world [was] possible.”

Holland and Hulik tell a story that encompasses a number of characters and several levels of society but remains bound to an extremely narrow band of time, and all the events depicted radiate outward from a single hub: the death of Jan Palach, who burned himself alive in front of Prague’s National Museum. Immediately after Palach’s suicide, authorities found a letter in which he declared himself a “torch” in protest of the Soviet invasion and the clampdown on free expression. He expressed his demand for a general strike, and promised that there would be more young people immolating themselves in his wake.

These events, and the police investigation surrounding them represent only Part One of Burning Bush. Parts Two and Three deal with the aftermath of Palach’s act, in particular the rallying and subsequent banning of student activism (part two) and attorney Dagmar Buresová (Tatiana Pauhofová) representing the mother and brother of Palach in a libel case against a pro-Soviet politician (Martin Huba) who defamed the boy at a party congress (part three). In the process, Burning Bush assays the personal and political impact Palach’s suicide has on Palach’s surviving family; Buresová and her own family; Buresová’s colleagues; student leader Ondrej Trávnícek (Vojtech Kotek), a co-plaintiff in the libel case; and Maj. Jireš (Ivan Trojan), a weary Prague cop who displeases his superiors by conducting honest police work rather than toeing the party line.

As some of the above character descriptions and situations may indicate, Burning Bush often adopts transparent genre conventions, combining real individuals (such as Buresová, who became the Minister of Justice under Václav Havel following the Velvet Revolution) with composite figures like Trávnícek and fictional figures such as Jireš. Holland is perfectly willing to employ conventional pacing, musical cues as well as stock characters (the young idealist, the self-serving party apparatchik) to achieve her goal of making this historical moment resonate with audiences for whom it is an increasingly distant idea. If we compare Burning Bush to other efforts in the new but burgeoning subgenre of “auteur cine-television,” it lacks the formal immediacy and anxious montage that Assayas brought to Carlos.

However, Burning Bush has a very different job to do. Within its overall formal restraint, the series locates another kind of radicalism, a uniquely dialectical materialist approach to time. Unlike Carlos or most other long-form film or TV projects, Burning Bush concentrates its analytic gaze on a very narrow span of time, a series of events all connected to one world-historical event. Palach, an ordinary and by all accounts shy, retiring young man, had no reason to believe that his self-immolation would become the (literal) spark that would result in lies by the Soviets that ordinary, middle of the road Czechs would find intolerable; that would expose Czech collaborators with the Soviet invaders; and that would make Warsaw Pact hegemony impossible. Yes, the Soviets would rule with guns and tanks for another twenty years. But Palach burned away their legitimacy.
To examine Palach’s act as a particular point, and observe how it has immediate local consequences, is to treat the immolation as a material act. Palach, after all, gave his body to the cause, and bodies are powerful because they have weight and location before they become metaphors or legends. If we think for a moment about Guy Debord’s concept of the spectacle, which is fundamentally a collapse in the distinction between objects and images (a collapse, it should be remembered, that is in the service of power), then Palach’s self-immolation, dramatic though it was, was no spectacle. It was a defiantly anti-spectacular act, wherein the man turned his body into an image of protest precisely because he never stopped being a flesh and blood human being. We identify with the man in the flames, his dedication and his anguish.

Burning Bush zeroes in on a pivotal moment in anti-authoritarian history, and fans out to examine its immediate, local aftermath, and in doing this the film does what it can to return to the scene of Palach’s action and strip away the layers of heroic myth and martyrdom that the act has assumed over the ensuing years. Holland and Hulik return the boy’s humanity to him, and in doing so, they demonstrate what a desperate, angry individual can do when pushed beyond the limits of reason. (Palach claimed to be part of a group who would carry on the immolations, but no proof of an organization was ever found. A second student, Jan Zajíc, torched himself a month later, but all indications pointed to both men acting of their own volition.) There are numerous stories to tell from the Prague Spring, and a much broader docudrama was of course possible. But this one – Palach’s immolation and the Soviet intolerance of “socialism with a human face” – is one that these artists felt needed to be told now.

This is the expanded dialectic, the manner in which “then” and “now,” “there” and “elsewhere,” enter into an active relationship. Burning Bush concludes with a 20-year flash forward, when we see student activists in 1989. They look very similar to those we saw in 1969, and like those earlier radicals, the students in the late 80s are frantically distributing leaflets and beating a retreat from the cops. The flyers bear Jan Palach’s face and commemorate the 20th anniversary of his suicide protest. Holland’s point is crystal clear: Palach’s act was never forgotten. It had temporal resonances that could not be controlled, like an unseen energy source that the Czech people could carry within them even through decades of tyranny.

Holland dedicates Burning Bush to Palach and Zajíc, and others who died in the fight for freedom. And yet, I cannot help but wonder whether the decision to make this series, to return to 1969, and that particular spot outside the National Museum, and the specific sacrifice of these two men, may have something to do with more recent historical events. On December 17, 2010, another desperate man made himself a human torch to protest a life of ceaseless political domination. Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor in Tunisia, responded to police and municipal harassment, and the systematic prevention of his pursuit of an honest living, by dousing himself with gasoline and lighting himself on fire in the town of Ben Arous. Protests followed, ultimately resulting in revolution in Tunisia and, ultimately, the Arab Spring. As we know, these revolutions are incomplete; many are stalled, and there is still a great deal of work to do. But Burning Bush seems to provide a very direct message from the past, if not from Palach himself. Fires may flicker, but they never go out completely.