In January 1969, Czech university student Jan Palach set himself aflame in Prague’s Wenceslas Square to protest the Soviet occupation of his homeland. His brave deed and painful death sparked massive spin control by the Czech government and its Soviet overlords, rather than the expressions of dissent he hoped to inspire, as chronicled in the excellent “Burning Bush.” Expertly helmed by Agnieszka Holland, this three-part HBO Europe miniseries is a compelling slice of history in which fear can trump idealism and the truth doesn’t always lead to justice. It’s a taut, nuanced work that should easily connect at a human level with upscale offshore auds.
Already broadcast in Eastern Europe, and Toronto-bound after earlier fest play including Rotterdam and Karlovy Vary, “Burning Bush” reps a valuable contribution to our understanding of the past half-century of Czech history. Rather than telling Palach’s story in straightforward biopic form, Stepan Hulik’s intelligent screenplay concentrates on the impact his self-immolation had within the social and political climate of the time. He centers the action on charismatic attorney Dagmar Buresova (Tatiana Pauhofova) and the remaining members of the Palach family — Jan’s mother Libuse (Jaroslava Pokorna) and brother Jiri (Petr Stach) — who hire Dagmar to sue parliament member Vilem Novy (Martin Huba) for libel. After Jan’s death, Novy made a much-reported speech that scandalously belittled him and suggested the existence of a false conspiracy.
Surrounding these principal characters is a large, well-etched ensemble, encompassing the student protesters who attempt to preserve the remaining ideals of the Prague Spring and publicly defend it against systematic repression, as well as the STB, the Czech secret police, who deal mercilessly with any activity that could be considered anti-communist. There are also supporting players, such as Dagmar’s physician husband, Radim (Jan Budar), who, much like Libuse and Jiri, becomes a casualty of a family member’s heroism and sacrifice.
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Although preparations for the court case and its ultimate hearing take up much of the latter two episodes, the longer first chapter shows the lengths to which the organs of the state go to defuse Jan’s action. Fearing that more human torches will appear, police major Jires (Ivan Trojan) blackmails Jan’s student friend (Emma Smetana) into appearing on live television and saying that the dying man has asked her to request that no one follow his example.
While the compassionate doctor (Tatjana Medvecka) treating Jan has the wherewithal to stand up to the police and the STB, not everyone is so lucky. Dagmar’s mentor and law-office partner, Vladimir Charouz (Adrian Jastraban), seems to be a highly principled man. But his political-activist daughter (Jenovefa Bokova) reps a weak point that a sinister secret-police officer (Igor Bares) ferrets out almost immediately. Even the judge (Ivana Uhlirova) presiding over the Novy case is explicitly told by her superiors what the verdict should be.
Neophyte screenwriter Hulik won a literary award for his book “Kinematografie zapomneni,” in which he mapped out the state of Czech film during the period of so-called normalization, and he clearly understands how much of Czech society at the time was paralyzed by fear and the feeling that things could not be changed. Given the complexity of the story he tells, some characters and events are necessarily fictionalized. But the doomed court case at the center was real, and Dagmar Buresova went on to become the first Czech justice minister of the post-communist era.
Holland, who studied at the famed Czech film school FAMU and actively participated in the events portrayed, displays a singular feeling for the material, not only for having lived through the period, but also because it aligns with a key focus in her work: the question of human morality and how it withstands a fraught situation. Her experience directing longform cable TV series such as “The Killing” and HBO’s “Treme” and “The Wire” lends a fluidity to her style, and she confidently visualizes complicated details in a compressed but gripping fashion.
Ace lensing by Martin Strba and Rafal Paradowski, blending perfectly with archival footage, leads the good-looking tech package. Costumes, production design and locations, with the help of extensive VFX work, supply an authentic period feel, while the haunting score conveys a continual sense of anxiety and danger.