email print share on Facebook share on Twitter share on LinkedIn share on reddit pin on Pinterest

FILMS Poland

Burning Bush: the meaning of sacrifice


- Agnieszka Holland sheds new light on the immolation of Jan Palach, a major episode in the struggle for Czech liberation from communism

When Agnieszka Holland (interview) brings to the screen the trajectory of a martyr, hero, individual or genius, from Solomon Perel in Europa, Europa to Copying Beethoven, not forgetting Total Eclipse and the True Story of Janosik and Uhorcik, or even Leopold Socha in In Darkness, she always does it in an intimate way, without erecting any monuments to them. This is also the case in her new opus, Burning Bush, a television series in three episodes dedicated to Jan Palach, a student who set himself on fire in 1969 in Prague to protest against the communist dictatorship and the invasion of his country by the Soviet Union.

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

Jan Palach is, however, hardly present in the movie. His action opens the movie, but we only see him for a few minutes and his face is never shown completely. Instead, the focus is placed on the witnesses: we see Palach’s desperate act through the eyes of a young mother, her three or four year-old daughter, passengers getting off the tram, a ticket inspector, a student who happens to be walking by... The hero himself is not the centre of attention because it is the context, the social environment and the impact of Jan Palach’s act that is of interest to Agnieszka Holland.

Burning Bush is not a historical film representing a heroic action, but rather the reflection of people, their emotions and attitudes, with all their strengths and weaknesses: their fear of the system, compelled lies, courage, sacrifice, disenchantment, solitude, and finally, hope, which only emerges 20 years later. To conclude her account, Agnieszka Holland indeed shows scenes of the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of Palach’s sacrifice in January 1989, a commemoration which led to several days of important demonstrations (now called “the Palach Week”) announcing the fall of the dictatorship.

Beyond a very strong narrative dynamism, which sometimes makes the film closer to a thriller, the choice of the human perspective gives Burning Bush the authenticity of a documentary and brushes away any risk of falling into sentimentalism. One of these human dimensions, remarkable and moving, sees the parents of young rebels worrying about the destructive nature of political opposition: “What if my son were inspired by Palach and followed his example?”… Because Jan Palach’s act also had its detractors. Just as the director perfectly outlines, his action led to very strong emotions and admiration in Czech society, but it also brought about a real sense of anxiety and serious doubts. The question of the meaning of sacrifice is clearly central to the film, which is also dedicated to Czech citizens Jan Zajic and Evzen Plocek and Polish national Ryszard Siwiec, who also set themselves on fire during the same struggle.

Produced by HBO Europe, Burning Bush will be shown on HBO channels in 15 European countries. Unveiled at the Rotterdam Film Festival, it has a place already reserved on the programme of the 48th edition of the Karlovy Vary Festival. 

(The article continues below - Commercial information)

Did you enjoy reading this article? Please subscribe to our newsletter to receive more stories like this directly in your inbox.

Privacy Policy