On January 16, 1969, about five months after Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to squash the Prague Spring, a 20-year-old student named Jan Palach poured gasoline over his head and lit himself on fire in Wenceslas Square. Letters he sent before committing this act of protest (which ultimately killed him, though he survived in agony for a few days) claimed that other “torches” would follow unless certain demands—mostly related to dismantling Soviet censorship and propaganda—were met by a looming deadline. Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush, originally shown as a three-part mini-series on HBO Europe (and running just shy of four hours), recreates the lingering fallout from Palach’s defiant self-sacrifice, detailing the ways in which it turned out to be futile in the short term but revolutionary in the long run. There’s a very belated happy ending, but only following many examples of why one can’t fight City Hall.
As it turned out, Palach’s claim that he was part of a large group committed to self-immolation was a lie, though several other students were inspired to follow his example. Burning Bush concerns itself primarily with a lawsuit brought by Palach’s mother (Jaroslava Pokorná) and brother (Petr Stach) against a Czech party official, Vilém Novy (Martin Huba), who’d made a speech in which he accused Palach of having intended to fake his suicide with something called “cold fire.” (According to this conspiracy theory, right-wing radicals secretly substituted gasoline for the harmless substance so that Palach would really burn.) Idealistic attorney Dagmar Buresová (Tatiana Pauhofová) agrees to represent Palach’s family, despite her knowledge that securing a judgment against Novy is all but impossible. Indeed, so corrupt is the system that the judge in the case actually gets handed the verdict she’s to read, after having been told in no uncertain terms that failing to play along will get her transferred from Prague to some hideous backwater.
Unlike Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev’s superior Leviathan—which premiered at last month’s Cannes Film Festival and tells a similar (fictional) story of ordinary citizens being systematically beaten down by the state when they attempt legal action—Burning Bush doesn’t dig a bottomless pit of despair, if only because we all know that Communism would collapse 20 years later. (Protests held on the 20th anniversary of Palach’s death were a big factor in Czechoslovakia.) Instead, it painstakingly shows how the Man covers his ass via intimidation, bribery, falsification, and blackmail, and it celebrates the heroic efforts of those who fight on anyway. Holland, a political filmmaker who did her best work (Europa Europa; Olivier, Olivier) in the ’80s and ’90s, sometimes directs with a heavy hand—a scene in which Palach’s mother receives horrific photos of her son’s charred corpse gets awfully amped up with the sound of a screaming infant in the background, for example. On the whole, though, Burning Bush is an absorbing docudrama that maintains a gratifying equilibrium between hope and cynicism. You can fight City Hall. It just takes a while.