Postmodern Conservative

Burning Bush, Part 1

Peter writes eloquently and often about the “relational” aspect of human nature — the joys of recognizing ourselves as limited beings with the need for powerful and enduring bonds with others. This recognition is untimely in the sense that it is at odds with the prevailing view of our radical autonomy. One irony is that this notion of radical autonomy toward which we appear to be running with open arms is a notion employed, by design, by Communist regimes. Observers often miss this fact, seeing only collectivism at work in Communism. Yet this collectivism was necessarily premised on atomization, on the destruction of ties, of love and friendship, that the state does not authorize. People under Communist rule would cling to this autonomy ever more forcefully as they came to understand the falsity and emptiness of the promised collective. This is why the experience of radical loneliness was such a common element in everyday life under Communism. This is captured quite beautifully in the character of the Stasi captain Gerd Wiesler in the film The Lives of Others. Wiesler rediscovers the possibility of the joys of his relational nature in the course of the film.  For more on that truly great film see the just published volume Totalitarianism on Screen —edited by yours truly and Carl.

Yet what happens when the demands of the truth and the demands of our relational natures appear to diverge? This question is not central to The Lives of Others, but it is at the core of the new film Hořící Keř, or Burning Bush (you can stream the film at Fandor, see previous link). This three-part film (234 total minutes) directed by Agnieszka Holland, which originally aired on HBO Europe, is an absolutely stunning achievement (sadly it is not eligible for an Academy Award because a version of it aired on HBO). Two weeks ago I would have said Lives is unquestionably the best cinematic treatment of Communism, but now it has a clear competitor.

The film is based on real events — the central one being the self-immolation of Charles University student Jan Palach on January 16, 1969, at the top of Wenceslas Square in Prague. The film begins with a haunting portrayal of this deed. To understand this action and the subsequent events covered in Burning Bush, some background is helpful. Palach’s act was in protest of the invasion and occupation of the country the previous August by Soviet and affiliated Warsaw Pact troops. The invasion launched on August 21 — which included over 150,000 troops — ended what would eventually become known as the “Prague Spring.” The period of the 1960s in Czechoslovakia saw a generally loosening of the Communist system: Restrictions on travel were eased and cultural life breathed more freely (novels and plays of genuine merit were published and performed). In early 1968 a reformist wing of the Communist party gained a foothold in crucial institutions and Alexander Dubček was elected as First Secretary of the party. Moscow watched closely that winter and spring and by July decided a forceful crackdown was necessary. Shortly after the invasion on August 21, Dubček and his fellow reformers were arrested and shuttled off to Moscow.  Five days later they were forced to sign the “Moscow Protocol” in which the Czechoslovak Communist party validated nearly all Soviet demands.  In return, the Czechoslovak leaders reoccupied their positions in government and were told troops would be withdrawn as soon as the situation in the country returned to normal.  The following month, the Soviets revealed their plan to keep some troops in the country more or less permanently and made Dubček and his group affirm the decision. The April 1969 meeting of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist party saw the resignation of Dubček and the ascension of Gustav Husák, who would become the figure-head of the “normalization” regime of the 1970s and ’80s.

Palach’s act thus occurred after the brutal Soviet invasion but before “normalization” began in earnest. It was thus a particularly tense time, with society not really adjusted to a post-invasion status quo and Czechoslovak leaders still wondering how much, if any, latitude the Soviets might allow. Some protests occurred in October and November after the invasion, led by university students and some trade unions. Some of this crucial backdrop is supplied by the film itself, with sounds and images of Western music combined with footage of Prague during the August invasion. More than one character also explicitly mentions the question of who and what is being manipulated by Moscow, with Czechoslovak apparatchiks expressing concern that they keep their own affairs in order to forestall further direct meddling from the Soviets.


In the film’s telling, Palach’s act was thus well-timed to exacerbate the anxieties of Czechoslovak Communist leaders. Indeed, Palach left a note that promised more self-immolations if two simple demands were not met: the abolition of censorship and the cease in publication of one propaganda organ called Zprávy. Palach referred to others ready and willing to take up the cause and ominously signed his letter “Torch No. 1.” The first part of the film captures the extremely tense atmosphere created by this mention of the possibility of Palach’s participation in a group with more willing “torches.” Palach died in the hospital on January 19. A remembrance march was held the following day and included tens of thousands, with a public viewing of the casket and funeral five days later. Part one of the film concludes with some actual footage of the memorial march and funeral.

We witness the investigation led by an honest, diligent policeman called Major Jireš. Jireš is unwilling to go further than the facts warrant, even when pushed and threatened by his superiors. By the end of the second episode, we see Jireš with his family in a car at the Austrian border. Though the border guard wishes his comrade a good vacation, the major’s nervous behavior suggests we are seeing an emigration. The Communist system cannot accommodate honest work and truth, and Jireš knows it.

I’ll come back to this film in other posts and explore the theme I raise above (relational nature and truth). Below is a photograph of a memorial at the spot where Palach’s self-immolation took place just below the steps of the National Museum.


Flagg Taylor is an associate professor of political science at Skidmore College and the editor, most recently, of The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 19771989.


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