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KARLOVY VARY – Made by the European wing of HBO, this superior four-hour miniseries dramatizes the political and emotional shockwaves unleashed in January 1969 when young Czech student Jan Palach, protesting against Soviet military occupation, doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire in the center of Prague. The director is veteran Polish Oscar nominee Agnieszka Holland, who has a long track record of working on award-winning HBO shows in the U.S., including The Wire and Treme. Holland was studying in Prague at the time of the protests, and was even briefly arrested.
A deluxe multi-character drama that blends real history with semi-fictionalized spy thriller and soap opera elements, Burning Bush feels in places like an extended Czech remake of the Cold War-themed German Oscar-winner The Lives of Others. Already aired on local television to great acclaim, it is also playing on the big screen as a single marathon movie at this week’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where Holland is presiding over the jury. Though clearly tailored to long-form TV audiences, further film festivals and specialist theatrical airings are not out of the question.
Polished and crafted, Burning Bush exhibits all the high production gloss that comes with the HBO brand. The script by young Czech novice Stepan Hulik mostly favors subtlety over sensationalism. The stirring score by Antoni Komasa-Lazarkarkiewicz lends romantic sweep to almost every scene. And though some of the characters feel a little too flatly heroic, most have more complex shades. Forays into the Czech countryside are sumptuously shot in picture-postcard tints. Even the drab cobbled streets and comically frumpy Eastern Bloc cars of late 1960s Prague are recreated in gleaming, retro-fetishist detail. With all these chain-smoking young beatniks in chic vintage fashions, we could almost be watching an Iron Curtain version of Mad Men.
Palach himself is only a fleeting presence in the drama, which opens with a graphic depiction of his horrifying self-immolation in Prague’s landmark Wenceslas Square. In the first hectic chapter, the authorities race against time to prevent copycat protests and contain the political fall-out. With Palach clinging onto life in hospital, the focus initially falls on the morally ambivalent police detective Jires, played by Czech household name and Billy Bob Thornton lookalike Ivan Trojan. Like many of the core protagonists, Jires is a fictional amalgam, and afforded a degree of sympathy despite being essentially a regime enforcer.
As the story expands, it moves from police procedural to politically charged legal thriller centered on the campaigning lawyer Dagmar Buresova (Tatiana Pauhofova), who takes a huge risk by representing Palach’s family against a Communist politician who libels the dead student as a deluded stooge of enemy powers. Buresova is a real person and this was a genuine lawsuit, although the filmmakers may have glamorized her life a little, adding a subplot of sizzling sexual tension with her Justin Bieber-ish assistant.
Spy-movie intrigue escalates as state security agents do their utmost to intimidate Buresova and Palach’s elderly mother (Jaroslava Pokorna), targeting their friends, family and loved ones with blackmail and threats. Eventually, the personality cult around Palach becomes so troubling to the authorities that they exhume his body, cremate him and re-allocate his grave. Holland and her team maintain an impressive level of tension here considering the drama’s final hour mostly involves tense private conversations and nit-picking legal debate.
An evergreen human story with obvious contemporary parallels in the Middle East and elsewhere, Burning Bush might have ended as just another depressing condemnation of totalitarian oppression, but history later served up a happy ending. As the final coda suggests, even if the young protestors of the Prague Spring lost the battle, they later won the war. Two decades after his death, Palach’s enduring example proved crucial in the decisive defeat of Soviet Communism. After defending dozens of anti-regime dissidents in court, Buresova become the first Czech Justice Minister of the post-Communist era, and remains an active human rights campaigner today.
Production company: HBO Europe
Producer: Tereza Polachova
Cast: Tatiana Pauhofova, Jaroslava Pokorna, Ivan Trojan, Petr Stach, Vojtech Kotek, Jan Budar
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Writer: Stepan Hulik
Cinematographer: Martin Strba
Editor: Pavel Hrdicka
Music: Antoni Komasa-Lazarkarkiewicz
Sales company: Beta Films GmbH
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