An eternal flame
A key moment in the nation's history is brought back to life by Oscar-nominated director
Posted: February 6, 2013
The three-part HBO miniseries Hořící keř (Burning Bush), which tells the story of the events following Jan Palach's self-immolation in January 1969, debuted on Czech Television Jan. 27 and has been met with praise and enthusiasm. It made its international premiere three days later at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, and the final part will be broadcast Sunday, Feb. 10.
The miniseries has already started airing in the Netherlands, "and the remaining 13 stations in the HBO Europe group will air Burning Bush in March," says Gerald Buckland, responsible for corporate and international communication for HBO Europe.
More than two decades after the fall of the country's communist regime and despite a vibrant film industry that often deals with historical incidents - among them the assassination of Deputy Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich in Protektor and the devaluation of the Czechoslovak crown in the award-winning Ve stínu - this is the first time Palach's story has been brought to the screen.
Štěpán Hulík, a 28-year-old FAMU graduate, wrote the screenplay that was picked up by television network HBO Europe, after Czech Television reportedly passed on the project.
Helming the production was renowned film director Agnieszka Holland, whose World War II film W ciemności (In Darkness), the real-life story of Polish Jews hiding in the sewers of Lvov, premiered in the Czech Republic in November. Holland was a student at FAMU at the time of Palach's death.
Palach, whose face is never shown in the miniseries, is the driving force behind the actions of a young lawyer, Dagmar Burešová (Tatiana Pauhofová), who would become the first minister of justice in post-communist Czechoslovakia.
Reflecting on the Czech film industry's dearth of representation of the effect the State Security had on individuals and families, the director, in an interview with The Prague Post (See story, page C3) says her native Poland has also struggled to come to grips with depicting this part of its history.
"In Poland, there was a television film where they mainly depicted people who were arrested and beaten up by the secret police as heroes," Holland says. "But the human dimension of communism - the ordinary lives, the unbelievable choices people had to make every day and how easy it was to break a person - was not described."
In the opening scene of the series, a man whose back is turned to the camera walks carrying two plastic pails to the stairs leading up to the National Museum. It is early in the afternoon on a busy Thursday, and people don't pay particular attention to him. He empties the two containers full of liquid over himself and strikes a match. Almost immediately, his entire body lights up.
Confusion about the meaning of his action and sorrow for the loss of life turn into indignation on the part of the government and action on the part of Palach's mother, who refuses to let her son be disrespected in death.
The images, mostly restaged but also comprising documentary footage, command our attention but never seem to be self-conscious depictions of history. The representation of Palach's self-immolation, for example, shows the reaction of the bystanders as much as the act itself, and many small but forceful moments throughout the miniseries stand out for the emotion they elicit: someone running with a large Czech flag, covered in blood, as the tanks roll into the city in August 1968; the candlelight vigil in Palach's hometown of Všetaty; Palach's mother imploring her son's nurse to save his life; and the moment when students replace Lenin's bust inside Charles University with a plaster casting of Palach's face. These brief moments contain many layers of meaning and prove Holland's skill at presenting the facts in an emotive way.
Spark of protest
Palach's suicide note mentioned his Jan. 16, 1969, act as the first torch lit in the struggle to reawaken a nation that found itself "on the edge of despair."
Although the government used condescending language to discuss Palach's death, this did not stop Jan Zajíc from committing the same act as Palach Feb. 25, 1969. His suicide note ended with words that reflected his decision to take a stand against the regime, despite the inevitable reaction: "Do not let them make me a madman."
Not coincidentally, the accusation by Vilém Nový, a Federal Assembly member, which triggers the investigation depicted by Burning Bush, suggests Palach was duped into setting himself on fire rather than doing so on purpose. It first appeared in print Feb. 21, 1969, four days before Zajíc did the same on Wenceslas Square.
"On the one hand, [Palach] was asking for a 'row of torches,' but on the other hand he later said nobody else should do it," says Milan Šmíd, a media analyst. "It was a question of political interest and media pressure. [Politicians] were afraid of the followers of Palach."
A man from Jihlava, Evžen Plocek, set himself on fire in this south Moravian city on Good Friday in early April 1969. A week later, 19-year-old conscript Michal Lefčík did the same in the city of Košice, in east Slovakia.
Interestingly, in the week before Palach's funeral, playwright Václav Havel suggested in a television interview that Palach's self-immolation would become less important if others followed suit. But Burning Bush shows what little difference Zajíc's act - brought to life in a remarkable scene early in part two - made in a society whose activism had already been extinguished in the four weeks since Palach's death.
"For the average person, bread was quickly becoming more important than politics," Šmíd says "People were resigned, passive and skeptical. Palach wanted to awaken their interest, to show them the situation wasn't good."
Though Palach's name is most-often remembered by those recounting resistance against the occupation, he finds his precursor in Poland. In September 1968, less than three weeks after the Warsaw Pact wrenched back control of Czechoslovakia, Ryszard Siwiec set himself alight in front of 100,000 people at a harvest festival in Warsaw in protest against the actions of the Warsaw Pact. Siwiec's act remains little-known, however, as news of the event was suppressed. In Czechoslovakia, Radio Free Europe (RFE) didn't broadcast information about it until after Palach's death.
"For a long time, even RFE didn't talk about him, and so his manifesto couldn't reach more people and still is not well known," Holland told Respekt magazine. "It's tragic, because he conceived his action poorly."
The modern significance of Siwiec is cemented by a street in Prague's Žižkov neighborhood, the site of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. Formerly named after a communist functionary, the street was renamed Siwiecova in 2009. Similarly, the square in front of the philosophical faculty of Charles University, where Palach was a student at the time of his death, was renamed in his honor shortly after the Velvet Revolution.
The title Burning Bush has its origins in biblical story of Moses, who stood next to a burning bush that kept burning without being consumed when he was anointed by God to lead the Hebrews for 40 years to the promised land of Canaan. This burning bush, it is written, was on holy ground and marked the spot where Moses became the savior of the Hebrews, who had lived for years in slavery under the rule of the Egyptian pharaoh.
Self-immolation as a form of protest often has religious undertones. In 1963, photojournalist Malcolm Browne famously captured Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc sitting serenely in the streets of Saigon, engulfed by flames. Widespread acts of self-immolation by Tibetan monks have also taken place in recent years to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
The closest recent comparison to Jan Palach, however, is the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, widely credited for sparking the Arab Spring that swept through North Africa at the beginning of 2011.
Although dealing with a somber subject, the tumultuous events that started with the occupation of sovereign Czechoslovak territory are presented with complexity and humanity that carve out a permanent place for Palach among the most influential, and his act among the most consequential, of the 20th century. Sometimes the wheels of justice turn slowly, but Palach's ultimate success in inspiring a generation of activists is a story whose origins are worth remembering.
Questioned about her view of students today, and their desire to effect change in the political situation, Holland remains optimistic. "We had a meeting with students at the Philosophical Faculty [at Charles University], and the students were really interested in politics," she says. "Also, the fact this film was made is a sign that things are changing. Students feel the responsibility and danger of conformism, which will be very important in the near future. Our generation has been compromised by politics, and I think it's time people who don't have [the communist] experience and were born after the Velvet Revolution took over."
- Hana Gomoláková and Monika Ticháčková contributed to this report.
André Crous can be reached at