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HBO Europe finds religion

'Burning Bush' mini centers on 1969 martyrdom

HBO Europe has seen success in its four key European territories — the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Romania — with formats like those based on Israeli hit “BeTipul,” which features smart well-written characters that can define the brand. Now, the cabler is adding a passion project to the mix.

HBO’s most ambitious original European miniseries to date, “Burning Bush,” tells the tale of history student Jan Palach, who set himself alight in 1969 to protest the Soviet-backed occupation of Prague. The suicide is perhaps the most influential Czech act of conscience since Protestant minister Jan Hus got himself burned at the stake in the Middle Ages.

Directed by Agnieszka Holland, the moody, often chilling three-part drama approaches Palach’s near-mythic act of martyrdom from a unique angle, following the scramble by authorities to discredit the 20-year-old, and his family’s hopeless legal actions to defend his reputation.

HBO Europe’s veep for original programming and production, Antony Root, would not disclose the project’s budget, but its tech specs and cast are comparable to splashy HBO U.S. productions, and it’s the most enterprising project yet launched in the 15 territories the European division reaches.

Holland, one of the rare European directors who alternates work on the Continent with helming U.S. projects, ranging from HBO’s “Treme” to AMC’s “The Killing,” says that after reading Czech scribe Stepan Hulik’s script, she didn’t hesitate in committing to the demanding Prague-lensed project. Though she likened the miniseries to shooting three feature films, her memories of Palach’s sacrifice from her own student dissident days made the choice easy.

“When you are doing episodic television in the U.S.,” she says, “it’s just a short commitment, and I am in some way serving somebody’s vision. ‘Burning Bush’ was much more a personal project from the point of view of my involvement and ambitions.”

While Holland notes that the project consumed a year of her life, she adds that the 50 shooting days gave her more breathing room than she often gets creating work for U.S. cable shows. “We had more time for each part,” she says, comparing the creative and economic logic of the production to that of an independent feature.

Root says “Burning Bush” is the first of HBO Europe’s original-language event miniseries. One or two such productions, which include longer drama series as well, are slated yearly for each of the cabler’s four key European territories. The first “Bush” installment aired Jan. 27; the mini also unspooled in the Rotterdam fest.

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