Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush, about Jan Palach, the young Czech who immolated himself publicly in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion of Prague, doesn’t analyze who Palach was or how he came to do violence to himself. Holland forgoes a biopic with its psychological pitfalls of cause and effect, using the Palach story as a lens through which to deliver an ampler vision of life under communism, after the brief period of political thaw known as the Prague Spring.
Burning Bush focuses on the impact that Palach’s sacrifice had on those around him, a handy entry point for Holland to portray the Czech student movement. Its key figures are painted with impressionistic brushstrokes, from leaders like Ondrej Trávnícek (Vojtech Kotek) to leaflet distributors and informers. There are the customary run-ins with the secret police, raids and chase scenes through the streets of Prague, general strike attempts, and eventual dissolution of the student union by the communists—incidents that may not be revelatory to those familiar with the Cold War history yet, as background, are vividly portrayed.
With a running time of over four hours, the decentralized narrative benefits from the film’s original conception as a miniseries, with plenty of time to draw us into the morass that was the communist state. Major Jires (Ivan Trojan) plays a dedicated investigator in charge of establishing whether Palach belonged to a larger organization. Jires increasingly recognizes that he’s on the wrong side of history, but although he’s sufficiently ground down to lose appetite for protest, he won’t stoop to acting like an apparatchik. In one of the film’s evocative scenes, after Jires files a complaint about the investigation’s mishandling and is threatened by his supervisor, the cynical Major Docekal (Igor Bares), he makes it for the western border with his family. The car’s engine dies, and husband and wife must push the vehicle to the crossing. The scene shows Holland’s talent for upping the suspense, using gestures and incidents that, while symbolic, emanate a wry sense of humor.
The film’s emotional weight skews heavily to the early parts, before Palach’s death from his burns, as his brother (Petr Strach) and mother (Jaroslava Pokorna) hold a vigil at his bedside. The family’s grief imparts psychological weight to the story, but it also renders it portentous at times, in a drama where good forces battle the bad. It’s not until the incident of the Palach family filing a suit against a communist party official who defamed Palach as a “rightwing extremist” at a plenum that Burning Bush regains its momentum. The family’s case looks hopeless, since it means confronting the state’s well-oiled machine. But the Palachs find a defender in Dagmar Buresová (Tatiana Pauhofová), an attractive, feisty lawyer, at first reluctant to expose her family or to risk her stellar career, though ultimately swayed about her moral imperative, after witnessing the military’s viciousness.
From this point on, Holland plunges into an investigative drama, as Buresová, her colleague, Vladimír (Adrian Jastraban), and assistant, Pavel (Patrik Dergel), try to ferret out what exactly had been said at the plenum in order to mount a legal case. Holland adds glimpses of Buresová’s domestic life, as her comfy lifestyle and marriage are put to the test. Wrongly accused of slander, Buresová’s husband is brought up before a disciplinary committee. He loses his job, while Buresová’s family home is put under surveillance. Against the gloom, Holland sprinkles lighter touches, such as one of Buresová’s daughters exchanges greetings with the secret policemen observing them, evoking how eerily the daily grind coexisted with the sharper moments of fright.
Burning Bush captures the persistent psychological wearing down of the opposition, including Buresová’s witnesses, and of her partner in the firm, Vladimír. When Vladimír’s daughter is arrested at a student rally, Vladimír steals a crucial file from Buresová and delivers it into the hands of the secret police to clear his child’s record. Palach’s mother suffers a nervous breakdown confronted with the morgue photographs of her son’s burned body. When the trial finally takes place, behind closed doors, Palach’s accuser cynically offers his condolences to Palach’s mother, knowing that the trial is rigged. The accumulative effect of such incidents builds up a vivid sense of oppression, present in the works of Holland’s Polish contemporaries, such as Krzysztof Kieślowski’s No End or Andrzej Wajda’s Without Anesthesia.
The Palachs lose the case, but Holland keeps us guessing long enough to revel in Buresová’s intrepidness. As a crime heroine, she recalls some of her television counterparts: Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, Elisabeth Moss as Robin in Top of the Lake, or Gillian Anderson in Netflix’s The Fall, though her investigative powers are more limited, and her image softened by her status as a fulfilled mother and wife. When Buresová faces the communist party’s lackeys in court, we have a double reason to empathize with her plight, for as a defender of those who stand no chance, and as a woman, she’s doubly patronized. In the end, Holland frames Palach’s sacrifice and Buresová’s legal defeat as a greater moral victory by cutting to 30 years later, when the Czech regime fell in 1989—a conclusion that might have sounded pat had Holland not shown us the full consequences of the Palachs and Buresová’s struggle, and the heavy price at which the victory was bought.