The society of a lie
Burning Bush is a sort of visual postscriptum to the essays of Václav Havel and similar significant personalities from the history of Czech anticommunist opposition. The movie follows the story of Jan Palach, a student of history and political economy at Charles University in Prague, who in January 1969 set himself on fire in protest against the intervention of Warsaw Pact armies and the suppression of the Prague Spring reforms the previous August. Interestingly, Palach is not the main protagonist in the movie, but his story rather serves as a point of departure. Holland successfully manages to escape the popular convention whereby the romantic hero declares a symbolic war on the system. In her story, she violently contrasts the romanticism of Palach’s character with equally violent, yet very prosaic consequences of his self-immolation. The events of January 1969 become the background against which she tells a story of the structural violence hidden behind the communist system – the violence which manifests itself through complete rejection of truth and total suppression of all kinds of decency. Holland tells a story about the destruction of humanism, about human solidarity and honesty, about the faults in the moral backbone of the society. Finally, her story is one of the indifference to – as Havel would later say – the call for ‘life in truth’ .
The student’s death is a point of departure for the story of a young female lawyer Dagmar Burešova, who on behalf of Palach’s family sues a communist deputy, Vilém Nový. During one of the party meetings, the deputy has announced that Palach’s act was not heroic but accidental, since the self-immolation was arranged to be only a false demonstration using sparklers. Why then such tragic end? An accident. Palach most probably made a mistake. But this was none of the deputy’s business – he was just stating, what in his opinion was the truth about Palach’s act. It was provocative, anti-state and simply wrong.
Holland is a master at exposing the anatomy of the social conflation of truth and lie with her narrative details: the symbols, the face expressions, the seemingly unimportant relationships and the attempts to ‘try’ the system. We don’t need to endure a simplistic story of some grandiloquent struggle between good and evil; the main story is the one that illustrates breaking free out of the glass cage, while still obeying the rules. Everyone pretends to function within a set of unquestionable frames of behaviour, whereas in reality they all make attempts of escaping them, while others are carefully testing their limits. This is a story of evil that is very trivial; of the consequences of rejecting basic human civility and developing a conviction of one’s absolute infallibility and right to define the world. The communists in the movie reject the Masarykian belief that actions should be pursued with consideration of future consequences and the awareness that someone someday will judge their actions.
This is a movie about tugging at the hem of a giant’s robe and the helplessness when he carelessly shakes off all your effort. This is a movie that will sting, scratch and make you anxious; it brings about in the spectator the feeling of being constantly uneasy and morally sick. By operating with a plethora of simple, painfully and perfectly average instances straight from everyday family, professional and social life and presenting examples of corruption and opportunism of people in any position of power, the film’s plot remains helplessly ordinary. The characters – brilliant performance especially from Tatiana Pauhofova (Burešova) and Ivan Trojan (the morally confused secret agent) – get irritated and grit their teeth at this absurd reality of constant lying. They become doubtful, untrusting. They know they’re not fighting to win, but to claim their right to fight itself.
Emotions of the generations
By casting the story among real, simplest emotions and detaching it in a way from the personage of Palach and Czechoslovakia of the late sixties, Holland has created a story that is universal for all of Central and Eastern Europe. Perhaps it was easier for her, as she herself can well understand the sense of moral suffocation, she even personally knew one of Palach’s successors, the “torch number three”. I think, however, that the movie would lack this universalism, if the director didn’t have at her disposal a group of Prague Film School alumni in their late twenties, who wrote the script (the debut of Štěpán Hulík) and produced it (Tomáš Hrubý i Pavla Kubečková). This cross-generations collaboration, the mixture of different perspectives and of reasoning, makes for an outstanding final effect, further enhanced by the impressive quality on the technical side. Several scenes – for example the scene of crossing the border upon the escape from Czechoslovakia – strike with their symbolism. They also make us realize that the fate of one protagonists brings together the experiences and emotions of thousands of people from Central Europe of that time who, in these protagonists, might see the reflection of themselves, or that of their parents.
What has been created, is a motion picture that – while being largely based on true story – corresponds to the convention of a legal thriller, drama and a rough social reportage – defined one day by Wojciech Tochman as one that “makes the reader experience first-hand fear, pain and humiliation. When I write, I want to deeply move, to shock. This is the kind of moving that makes sense and leaves a lasting impression, unlike the moving that leaves you with nothing more than a wet handkerchief”  Burning Bush is far from using cheap tricks and playing on spectators’ emotions; it is, to the contrary, deeply moving and leaves the audience feeling disgusted and as if their hands were all covered in dirt.
My one and only reservation concerns the structure. It is hard to say whether it was imposed by the producer – HBO Europe – or whether it was the film crew that came up with it themselves, but the form of three-episode series is far from perfect. The whole story is far too long to watch at once, and the time the spectator has to wait in anticipation of another episode gradually extinguishes the emotional engagement on their side. It is the kind of story that makes us, almost in a masochistic way, watch it without pause, even if it inflicts the kind of physical pain that Tochman was talking about. The movie truly keeps you on the edge of your seat. As such, it could probably benefit from slight editing, which, by shortening, could also make the whole story more clear and meaningful.
Dirt and crisis
There is no doubt that Czechs and Poles alike (as well as the citizens of Central and Eastern Europe in general) needed that kind of a movie to be reminded of the significance and symbolism of the miracle of 1989, almost 25 years after it happened. The creators of Burningh Bush carefully emphasize the link between the events of 1969 and the end of communism 30 years later. The movie was also necessary in order to remind those nationalities of the dirt that they tried to wash off their hands with years of hastened reforms and to make them reflect on whether they have indeed succeeded in doing so.
Czechs and Poles needed this movie for one more reason: they needed a new, updated medium, validated by the testimony of the first free generation, to enrich their story of fighting for freedom, of common values, of the struggle to become liberated. To complement the traditional, slightly worn-off collection of authors such as Kundera, Havel or Michnik. Burning Bush fulfills this role perfectly and it remains to be hoped that it will be possible to present the mini-series also to the Western audience (so far it has been only viewed in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe). In times of crisis and of rise of appalling tendencies on the both ends of political extremes, its universal message has the potential to appeal to more people than Czechs and Poles. The warning that stems from Central European experiences, seems like an important voice in the today’s debates, when one needs to take a stand in discussions on the current state, as well as on the future, of the European society. So that we don’t feel like we need to be washing our hands again.
Burning Bush (orig. Gorejący krzew), directed by Agnieszka Holland, Czech Republic 2013.