Milos Stehlik talked to Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, who studied film in Prague during the 1960s, about Palach, identity and denial, and about her miniseries, Burning Bush.
MILOS STEHLIK: How did you first learn about Jan Palach?
AGNIESZKA HOLLAND: I was in Prague just before and after. I arrived a week after the funeral. I was a student in the film school. I was very involved in the movement.
I was one of the leaders of the student strikes in FAMU (the Film Academy). It was my first important political and human experience. I was a part of the explosion of freedom and hope of the Prague Spring. Then came the incredible shock of the Soviet invasion. We hoped to preserve some part of freedom, even if we were oppressed by the regime. Slowly, the realization came that it is very easy to break and corrupt the people through a kind of soft oppression and fear. It began after Palach’s death. This change happened during one month. Palach was received by the Czech people as national hero, and his funeral became a kind of national funeral. One month later, another young boy, Jan Zajic, repeated the same act. It was a very important human experience to see how easy it is to convince people to remain quiet and to convince people that it is better to accept oppression than to fight.
How did the idea of making this film come to you?
It came as a kind of a gift. One day I received an email from a Czech film critic who was organizing a film festival. He had a friend who wrote a script about Jan Palach. A few days later, I received the script by email. I read it out of curiosity. I was surprised that it was really good, very accurate. It matched my memories and my deepest understanding of what had happened in 1969. I was sure that the scriptwriter was someone of my generation. I never imagined it would be someone who did not live through these events. When they came to see me in Poland while I was finishing In Darkness, I was totally shocked. They looked so young, like high school kids. They were still in film school, but had the interest of HBO. If I agreed to direct, probably the project could happen. It took one year to do it, from the moment we met to finishing the shooting. It was pretty fast.
It’s less a story of Jan Palach than what happened after his death.
It would be very difficult to make a biographical movie about Jan Palach. We don’t really know anything about Jan Palach. He was just a young, very sensitive, good boy. Of course you can invent whatever. But the fact is that the film is not about the hero but about what it means for society to meet the hero.
Our parents never told us their story and how they lived through this. The Czechs of my generation behave a bit like the Nazis in post-war Germany, with a mix of shame and nostalgia and some confusion. Everyone had to compromise in some way. They didn’t want to talk about it. The silence became a kind of barrier between the generations. Suddenly this young generation says, “No, we want to know. We want to tell the truth. It’s a part of ourselves.”
The lawyer who takes the case, Dagmar, is an ordinary lawyer who decides to fight an injustice.
I love this Dagmar character. She didn’t want to be a hero. The people who defend the shadow line against corruption often don’t even know why they do it—it’s an inner necessity. They know that it’s stupid and pointless and will hurt them and their family, yet still do it.
What are the film’s lessons for today?
I wanted to show how the Communist oppression worked. It was different from Nazism. It was a different kind of totalitarian engineering. It was softer, and because it was softer, it corrupted people in a much more efficient way. They didn’t even feel corrupted. It destroyed millions and millions of destinies over the years. It has affected the political life, the social life and especially the moral life until today. This is one of the first movies to deal with this subject: the life and the failure of millions of people and their destinies.
Your film captures this co-existence of oppression and normalcy.
The screenings in Warsaw and Prague were very emotional. They had incredible impact. My young collaborators wrote to me after to tell me that their parents started to talk. They started to tell the stories. It was a catharsis. I didn’t expect it would have such an impact. I thought we are doing a good film, an interesting story, but I did not imagine that it would be so important on a national and social level.
Milos Stehlik is the director of Chicago’s Facets Multi-Media, which he co-founded in 1975. Facets is a cinematheque and national distributor of more than 65,000 art and classic films.
BURNING BUSH | Czech Republic, 2013, 240m | Director: Agnieszka Holland