The Dissidence of Others

En route to the Czech Republic’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the summer of 2006, I stopped off for some sightseeing in Prague. Having dutifully made the rounds of the city’s hopping tourist spots, I retreated to my bare-bones hotel in an altogether different part of town. No Kafka-themed tchotchkes here: The working-class neighborhood was dotted with soaring concrete apartment blocks, barely stocked stores and cafeterias, and dour-looking citizens who, refreshingly, felt no obligation to smile for passing tourists.

That downbeat section of Prague, a relic of Soviet rule from 1968 to 1989, could plausibly serve as an era-defining backdrop in Burning Bush, Agnieszka Holland’s magnificent 2014 period drama about the political fallout from the 1969 suicide of Jan Palach, a student protesting the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous year.

Made as a three-part miniseries for HBO Europe and then edited into a film, it was the Czech Republic’s entry for best foreign-language film at the 2014 Academy Awards, but was disqualified because it had already been telecast. The presentation on the Criterion Channel retains the four-hour miniseries in its original form, a political thriller doubled with an intimately observed chronicle of survival and rebellion in a country that had briefly tasted democracy before a Warsaw Pact coalition moved in to brutally dismantle the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring. The plot centers on the efforts of the Soviet authorities and their Czech flunkies to spin Palach’s death as a right-wing conspiracy, and to contain the possibility of copycat suicides triggering an all-out revolt.

I was a sociology major in my second year at Britain’s London School of Economics when news broke that the twenty-year-old history student had set fire to himself in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Palach left a note calling himself “Torch No. 1,” calling for a general strike and an end to media censorship, and threatening that more suicides would follow if his demands weren’t met.

The LSE—then a cosmopolitan university, founded by Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, where you could be flanked in class by a fully robed African prince on one side and the daughter of a local trade unionist on the other—served as a busy hub of England’s 1968 campus revolt, in which I, a garden-variety London suburbanite fresh from a prim high school for girls, was no more than a chronically shy peripheral player. Palach’s self-sacrifice made a deep impression on the part of me that couldn’t shake the queasy feeling that our elite enclave of the Western counterculture was playing for comparatively low personal stakes. True, Britain’s campus New Left had honorable roots in the nuclear disarmament movement and the fight against social inequality. We marched against apartheid in South Africa, supported the Troops Out of Ireland movement, railed against corporate fat cats, joined in solidarity with the American antiwar and other European movements, among them the Prague dissidents.

We, too, were fighting the revolutionary fight, but mostly by proxy and at little cost to us, a privileged subset of a post–World War II generation that had grown up in peace time without a draft. Our education and health care came free, courtesy of a generous welfare state funded by successive Labour governments. None of us was going to Vietnam, and in a relatively open Western democracy the most punitive repercussions we could expect for our activism were a rap over the knuckles in court and a night in jail. We didn’t have to watch what we said, stand on line for food in a stagnant state-controlled economy, or worry that the student we sat next to might shop us to the secret police.

Some of the domestic fights we picked were self-indulgent at best, at worst arrogant, in some cases downright daft. “Free, free the LSE / Take it from the bourgeoisie,” we chanted, and never mind that as the minority of Brits who actually made it to university, we were the bourgeoisie. Disrupting classes on the doubtful principle that our knowledge was as good as that of our professors—more than a few of whom were refugees from totalitarian Europe with much to teach us about unfreedom—we also took the fight home to our parents, defending the Soviet Union in the name of a socialism increasingly tainted by the emergent horrors of Stalin’s reign. I was far from alone, on visits to the parental home, in provoking strident altercations with my father, a former socialist who had helped found an Israeli kibbutz. “Why don’t you go and live in Russia if you love it so much?” he would mutter, and rustle his newspaper furiously to indicate case closed.

“Holland’s film handily dispatches my fantasies about the excitement of living on the dissident edge.”

Under the Soviet thumb, the Czech people didn’t have the luxury of choice or debate; after 1968, for all practical purposes they did live in Russia. Cracking down on the liberal reforms, the Soviets, abetted by a conservative Czech government, reinstated strict media censorship and replaced local news with Communist propaganda. Where we in the West risked nothing but the pursed lips of our elders when we embraced rock and roll, for young Czechs even following pop culture meant entering a danger zone. Each episode of Burning Bush opens with a sequence of young people twisting the night away with grim intensity, intercut with footage of Soviet tanks rolling through Prague and the bloodied bodies of protesters littering the streets. And in one telling thread of the film’s superbly interwoven subplots, a young woman’s love for the Rolling Stones leaves her horribly exposed to official manipulation.

When I wasn’t puzzling over what unique cast of temperament it took to kill oneself for a cause, I cooked up a romantic envy of the Czechs, whose state of perpetual emergency seemed to me to matter so much more than my own cosseted student life did. Beyond a firm rejection of the idea that Palach was insane, Holland’s film handily dispatches my fantasies about the excitement of living on the dissident edge. Burning Bush is less about Palach the man than about the agonizingly high stakes of resistance in the crackdown after his death. The film’s plaintive score, its shadowy lighting and claustrophobic interiors, convey both the urgency of that struggle and the daily struggle for survival in a once lovely city grown dark and dreary under occupation.

Holland knows this terrain at first hand. Born and raised in Poland by a Jewish father and a Catholic mother who was instrumental in helping Warsaw Ghetto Jews during World War II, she was arrested in 1968 along with other activists while a student at the renowned Czech film school FAMU. Later, after martial law was imposed in Poland and her 1981 film A Woman Alone (about a single mother trying to survive under Communism) was banned, Holland went into exile in Western Europe. She has lived and worked mostly in Los Angeles ever since. But from the early 1980s until today, Holland’s finest work has always been on home turf in Central Europe.  Along with her mentor Andrzej Wajda, her friend the Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski, Holland is one of our most incisive and humane interpreters of everyday life under dictatorship, whether Nazi (Angry Harvest, Europa Europa, In Darkness) or Communist (A Woman Alone).

Burning Bush is the mature culmination of that oeuvre. Less reliant on the stylized surrealism of Europa Europa, the film’s intense realism nonetheless still reflects the artful influence of the Czechoslovak New Wave, where tragedy goes hand in hand with farce. A goose runs amok in a courthouse; spies lurk absurdly in telephone booths; in a running joke sardonically threaded through the action, men on both sides of the struggle are forever ordering women to make them coffee.

For all her New Wave–inspired irony and aversion to the sentimental, Holland brings to Burning Bush the urgency, earnest moral passion, and procedural detail of a great political thriller cut with a harrowing domestic drama. For some Czechs faced with the choice between quiescence and resistance, fear eats the soul; others grow bold and resourceful under pressure. A police detective must decide whether the meddling of his Czech and Soviet superiors will allow him to honorably carry out his job. A student leader is consumed with guilt at having brushed off earlier overtures from Palach. In order to protect his activist daughter from prosecution, a lawyer considers selling out a valued colleague.

In one moving scene, Palach’s mother, Libuse (Jaroslava Pokorná), returns home from the hospital to find her neighbors, young and old, massing outside her house in a silent candlelit vigil. More scenes like that will follow, but cheap heroics are nowhere to be found here or anywhere in Holland’s work, which is always about the many shades of human character, including those on the side of the angels. Holland’s feminism is organic, not polemical. Two stalwart women in Burning Bush, both based on real-life resisters, come closest to heroism: Libuse, a frail but dignified woman intent on suing a Minister for libel and defamation of her dead son; and Dagmar Buresova (Tatiana Pauhofová), a strategically flirtatious and, as needed, steely lawyer who must decide whether or not to risk her family’s safety to take the distraught mother’s case.

If Burning Bush is about the daily work of resistance, at once grinding and loaded with suspense, Holland doesn’t flinch from the daunting fact that dictatorships tend to work in the short run. Winding down with more optimism, Burning Bush carries us forward twenty years to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, when the face on the banners hoisted aloft by marching citizens was that of Jan Palach, and the woman who fought to clear his name was appointed the new Czech Republic’s first Minister of Justice.

And yet. “We accept things now that were unimaginable six months ago,” an anguished Dagmar tells her husband early on in the film when, fearful of the danger to their family, he objects to her taking Libuse’s case. Fast forward to today, when the people of the former Czechoslovakia, now split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, find themselves in the crosshairs of right-wing populism and the far left. They’re not alone: Marching through London, Paris, and New York in 1968, little did we in the West know that the twenty-first century would find us fending off Russian influence and struggling to shore up the very democracy that had allowed us to protest freely fifty years earlier. Revisiting Burning Bush, I am profoundly unsettled by the fear that the sense of existential danger I once envied in the dissidents of Prague may yet return to haunt us all for real—minus the romance I attached to them as a youngster.

“All that is solid melts into air,” Karl Marx famously wrote in words subsequently quoted for many a period of unstable transition. Gazing at the global turmoil we now face, I am reminded less of The Communist Manifesto than of a required text for my favorite course at the LSE. It was written by Karl Popper, a Viennese Jew who fled the Nazis, founded the school’s philosophy department, and, who, near the end of his life, received an honorary doctorate from Charles University in Prague. The book, a seminal defense of liberal democracy against autocracies of left and right, was titled The Open Society and Its Enemies. It would go great on a mixed-media double bill with Burning Bush.


Burning Bush is available to stream on the Criterion Channel through December 31, 2019.