Taking inspiration from 1969
For Holland, knowing the past is essential to grasping the present
Posted: February 6, 2013
The Prague Post: You studied at FAMU during Prague Spring and witnessed all the events of 1968. Did this inspire you to work on Burning Bush?
Agnieszka Holland: Well, this era and the social and political experience I had during this time shaped who I am and what I do. So when the offer came, this was the first reason I said yes. The second reason was the script itself: It was very well written, mature, subtle, original and accurate all at once. When I read it, I was convinced one of my peers who lived through that time had written it. I was really surprised to learn the author was this young man [Štěpán Hulík]. He and the producers who worked on the project with him are the youngest generation and don't have the firsthand experience of that time or the events that took place; they weren't even born yet. I think it is very important to understand what the Czech Normalization experience meant, because [this past] shaped the nature of post-communist countries today. This hasn't been described yet in the Czech Republic, except in some documentary films and comedies. I think this is a sin; it reminds me of Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
TPP: You are the first director to depict how the state security practices forced individuals and families to surrender to the system - from anger to apathy, all that without pathos or irony. Why do you think no Czech director has taken this path since 1989?
AH: Neither have the Polish [directors]. In Poland, there was a television film where they mainly depicted people who were arrested by the secret police, beaten up, etc., as heroes. 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, this was not described. The entire society had actually totally given up. This soft power of communism wasn't described.
AH: Lech Wałęsa remembered how Moses led the Jews through the desert for 40 years before taking them to the Holy Land as he waited for the last of the generation that remembered life under slavery to die. Now we live longer, so I'm afraid the process will take a bit longer. The point is that the generation that lived through this era didn't find the ethical power or need within them to speak about it and also, quickly, this politically comfortable lie became popular. In Poland, the era was mostly presented as black-and-white in many aspects. [The directors] didn't want to go back to that era because they sort of failed in the light of today's scale of things. That's one reason, which is even more valid in the Czech Republic than in Poland. Reality is not some sort of "hardcore cartoon": It requires us to look deep into ourselves. It is not important that the era was brutal but that the majority accepted it as such. I was always interested in individuals who fought against the mainstream, but at the same time I didn't like when the rest of the society denounced them, because it's not as if they had a clear choice between good and evil. Nobody should demand of any individual to become a compulsory hero especially in times of so-called "soft terror."
TPP: You managed to capture this inner fight of your characters perfectly as well as Jan Palach's act and the impact it had on his family. How did you find the right balance?
AH: It's hard to say. It was in the script, and we just felt it. The important thing is to really get close to the human being, to get to know and understand feelings, choices, weaknesses and strengths through various dimensions. I always embraced this approach to a person, especially a person living in the totalitarian era.
TPP: Did the script change a lot from its original version? Which parts did you work on the most?
AH: The main story was there already from the beginning, and so were the characters, so we mainly worked on the scenes and how they work together best, the dramaturgy. We would only shape the characters a bit together with the actors. Apart from that I didn't change much, just the little details I remembered were a bit different.
TPP: You have already previously worked with both actresses, Tatiana Pauhofová and Jaroslava Pokorná. How was the cooperation with a Czech cast and crew in general? How does it differ from the American actors you have worked with for the past several years?
AH: There is no difference really: The cooperation was great. I have already worked with a great amount of actors in many countries. I always bear in mind that actors are sensitive yet brave human beings who entrust their psyche, talent and body to me. Everyone was brilliant; they didn't have any problem at all understanding the issue, and they had a great inner discipline and enthusiasm. The entire crew was also excellent, the production was superb, and the costume designer as well as the art department. Also, working with such an artist like the cinematographer Martin Strba was very inspiring
AH: We shot 95 percent of the film in Prague and also various locations and towns around Czech Republic. Prague has lots of empty spaces that are available. The biggest problem we had to solve was the very first scene [Jan Palach's self-immolation] on Wenceslas Square. The square today doesn't look anything like it did before. So we had to shoot the scene at an old depot, and there was a lot of post-production work. That scene was also one of the most expensive. We also shot in Všetaty, at the real house Jan Palach lived in. When I saw it the first time, I was shocked to see it's actually a total ruin where homeless people live, so we had to restore the place. This is an example of how Czechs relate to their heroes: Poles would turn the place into a shrine for sure.
TPP: Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski - you have worked with all three great directors. Who has influenced your work the most?
AH: I think I was influenced by the Czech New Wave the most, especially Evald Schorm and Jan Němec, Ivan Passer, and my professors were Karel Kachyňa and Otakar Vávra. Schorm has also influenced me as a person. Their films still inspire me today. My cinema has always oscillated between Polish pathos and Czech civilness. I see the world this way, too, so I'm not entirely sure exactly to which extent [1960s] cinema was responsible. Anyway, the way I perceive the world and who I am now has definitely started to be formed in Prague. So, when Czechs accepted the film with such enthusiasm, it touched me deeply. In a way I felt that I have to pay them back for teaching me how to make films and inspiring me how to live my life.
TPP: Today students don't care much for politics in the Czech Republic: They are confused, discouraged or just not interested. What could motivate them to get involved more in democratic politics in your opinion? What could draw their attention now that no such dramatic steps have to be taken for them to be heard?
AH: I think this will certainly happen; they are starting to play a huge part in politics already. I saw the small steps towards this trend: For example, after Václav Havel died, the students organized the memorial meetings or went to the funeral. We also had a meeting with students at the philosophical faculty and the students were really interested in politics. 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 that people who don't have that experience and were born after the Velvet revolution took over.
Hana Gomoláková can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org