June 19, 2014
By Pete Barell
Arts and Entertainment Editor
1969 was a packed year in American history. The Vietnam War, among other social and political problems, had rallied many people into protest. 500,000 or more joined together at the Woodstock Music Festival that August, a historic gathering of not only college students, but several generations of Americans. Yet, the American home front was safe. The fight between communism and democracy was largely overseas, far away from the American citizenship.
Halfway around the world, however, there were solid, often deadly consequences for Eastern European countries such as Czechoslovakia, which felt the brunt force of the pushing and tugging by Soviet Russia’s totalitarian regime.Polish director Agniezka Holland’s “Burning Bush” projects those struggles onto the screen like a visual textbook, one that does not omit the unpleasant parts of the time period.
The three-part film, clocking in at four hours total, was made for HBO by Holland (remember her Oscar nominated “In Darkness” back in 2011?), and began showing at Film Forum in New York (with two, fifteen minute breaks) on June 11. It is based on true events and real people, set three months after the Prague Spring, a brief respite of reform from Soviet control that was ended by the USSR.
The self-immolation of Jan Palach, a history-student-turned-protester from Prague, kick starts the story and illustrates the desperate nature of the Czech populace during this era in history. His literal burning, and the aftermath of that sacrificial action, parallels the biblical nature of the title: just like the burning bush refuses to give in to the fire, Czechoslovakia refused to give up hope of freedom.
“Burning Bush” isn’t about one person and hisstruggle, but a whole nation. At such a length, the story has the luxury of skipping from character to character; the family of the burnt college student, a young lawyer, a group of journalists fighting against censorship, government officials, and police. In this way, the viewer is let in to different experiences, forming one, cohesive, whole story. The tear-jerking onion layers are pulled off over the next four hours, as the film provides a multitude of viewpoints.
However, the most attention is given to Dagmar Buresova, the young female lawyer who defended Jan’s family despite the adversity of the communist government, a regime who sought to defame his protest legacy. Her story is full of political intrigue – exciting like a thriller, but paying important attention to the heaving, drawn-out efforts of the Czech citizenship fighting for freedom. A freedom which would not come to fruition for another twenty years, coinciding the fall of the Berlin wall, and collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Choice cinematography, piggybacking on the tense situations of the film in neat execution, creates an atmosphere of surreal danger. Some scenes are filmed in black and white (like old stock footage) and with a documentary feel, to further framing the events in a historical context. This adds an extra layer of realism – a reminder that the story is non-fiction.
Holland dishes out Hitchcockian suspense, like when Jan’s mother takes a train to visit her son, his self-immolation unknown to her until she sees his face in a newspaper. Her speechless response sums up the bended reality of that time. One scene in the film does well to illustrate this severity, when Buresova notes that Soviet tanks and gunfire have become common in the city. The scary thing is that these sights and sounds are becoming a new, absurd normality.
“Burning Bush” is a reminder to the Czech people of their historical resilience. To the United States and the rest of the world, it is an eye-opening account of history brought to the screen with astounding clarity of experience.