The images of Soviet tanks rolling into the streets of Prague, Czechoslovakia, in August 1968 is a chilling Cold War memory that now seems like a bad dream.
Agnieszka Holland’s enthralling, four-hour “Burning Bush” — produced as a miniseries for Czech HBO but playing in its entirety in U.S. theaters — begins with the sight of Warsaw Pact troops (led by Russians) invading Prague to squelch a restless, reformist spirit growing among young dissidents.
It turns out Holland — born in Poland in 1948 — happened to be in that Czech capital in those dark days, studying filmmaking. (The internationally renowned director’s credits include “Europa Europa” and “Copying Beethoven.”)
Holland’s personal memory of the failed Prague Spring shows in the intimate way she captures conflicts both large (a breathtaking street riot) and small (students frantically tossing resistance leaflets while chased by police) with a sense of heightened familiarity. She brings that same knowledge to a stunning early scene based, as with the rest of the film, on historical fact: the self-immolation of student Jan Palach in Wenceslas Square in protest of the occupation.
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Stepan Hulik’s screenplay sharply explores the fallout of Palach’s act on student organizations, the police, the press, the Communist government and Jan’s own family. Authorities fear, above all, that Palach’s sacrifice will become a symbol of inspiration.
Holland deftly takes the audience into every corner of a brewing crisis, from the offices of secret police to the bedroom of Jan’s depressed mother (Jaroslava Pokorna).
“Truth is whatever benefits the government,” says a seasoned Communist politician at one point. It’s no surprise that truth is the first victim in a war against freedom.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org