Saturday, November 09, 2013

Burning Bush: a dark movie about post-1968 events

Scott Armstrong is a climate skeptic and a forecasting expert – who wrote some sensible comments about the journalistic impartiality for Fox and LA Times – is challenging you to disprove his claim that there only exists
one published paper that claims to provide s scientific forecast of long-term global mean temperatures.
Well, I don't know which papers are exactly counted and for some interpretations, the proposition above seems to be untrue, but you may disagree so I copied the challenge for you.

Scott recently watched Hřebejk's 2013 film "Honeymoon" [Líbánky] as well as the 3-part 2013 Czech miniseries "The Burning Bush" by Polish director Ms Agnieszka Holland. He liked them and I managed to watch the Burning Bush, too. It was powerful and darker than I could imagine.

The plot and all the actors are Czech. This fact makes it hard for me to understand how it could have been directed by a Polish director. Or does she speak Czech? How can she organize the dozens of Czech actors – and other workers? (Update: Oh yes, she speaks Czech fluently. It's still incredible that the credibility of all the conversations was compatible with her leadership.)

Warning: Spoilers may be found in the text below.

The movie describes the society's reaction to self-immolation of Jan Palach, a student of humanities at the Charles University in Prague, in January 1969. About 4 Czechoslovak men and 4 other men from Poland, Hungary, Ukraine etc. set fire on them and committed suicide to protest the Soviet-led occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 that stopped the Prague Spring, a gradual process of democratization and liberalization of socialist Czechoslovakia.

The full 5-minute international trailer of the miniseries created for HBO.

Jan Palach is by far the most famous guy who burned himself in this way. Jan Zajíc who did something similar a month later is the second most well-known guy but the difference between their fame is already huge. One reason is that Zajíc, a high school student, didn't manage to show the fire in the public. He died too quickly, inside a house at the Wenceslaus Square. Other folks who were not students at all are even much less famous than Zajíc.

OK, the film

The miniseries has 3 episodes, about 80 minutes each. The Burning Bush was picked as the Czech candidate for the foreign Oscar this year but the proposal was killed by some Americans who didn't find the format to be OK or whatever so a film by Menzel became the representative instead.

The Burning Bush begins with the scene in which Jan [John] Palach sets himself on fire – on the Wenceslaus Square, the most lively commercial avenue in Prague. He protested against the occupation and the increasing tolerance of the Czech nation towards this intervention into our internal affairs. He called himself the Torch #1 in the letter, suggesting that other people will follow.

His brother Jiří [George] Palach learns about the event. Their mother was just going to visit the [late] son and she's devastated when she reads about the event in the newspapers (held by a fellow passenger in the train). We see some self-confident leaders of the student anti-occupation movements, especially the fictitious Mr Ondřej Trávníček.

Various people in the movie are increasingly untrustworthy and increasingly collaborating with the new pro-Soviet forces. It's very frustrating and it's truthfully describing the real-world events after August 1968. The people who want to agree with the message of Mr Palach are being increasingly harassed, the dead body is finally relocated from Prague to his village despite the wishes of the family, and many other very cruel things happen.

Most of the movie focuses on a libel lawsuit initiated by Palach's brother, mother, and the student leader above. They ask a successful attorney, Ms Dagmar Burešová – a real-world lady who was indeed defending various "antisocialist forces" and who became the speaker of the Parliament sometime after 1989 but was eliminated from politics by some elections (she is still alive, above 80 years of age, by the way). First, she disagrees, claiming that the student leader and others are just playing to be heroes but they're not heroes.

You may imagine that the discussions whether self-immolation is a courageous or cowardly act were omnipresent in the movie as well as in the real Czechoslovak society after 1968. I have mixed feelings. Our anti-communist Czech teacher at the basic school would criticize communists often but she kind of opposed Palach's act, too. The real courage is to live, and so on. Well, I understand where she's coming from but I still feel that Palach was a very fine man and a hero. One does need some courage to do something like that, whether you like it or not.

After some internal thoughts, the attorney changes her mind and does agree to defend Palach's relatives in the libel lawsuit. Well, I must tell you what the lawsuit was all about. During a communist party meeting, a communist lawmaker paints Jan Palach as a coward who was controlled by reactionary forces blah blah blah. All this junk is predictable but the lawmaker added a special twist, namely the theory that Jan Palach was originally promised "cold fire" (you may reduce the temperature of the fire if you use some mixture of alcohols and water but otherwise I think it's unrealistic to imitate real fire without the high temperature) but someone gave him real gasoline instead, so he was killed blah blah.

All of this was painting Jan Palach as an idiot who couldn't think independently. Moreover, the lawmaker was conveying the message that the self-immolation was useless, something that the relatives didn't want to accept, either. To make things complicated, this nasty hardcore Stalinist used to have a courageous past himself. He was working against Nazis from Great Britain during the war and was convicted by the other communists in the late 1940s etc. However, he did become a hardcore commie, obviously satisfied with his job and drinking vodka with the Russian generals etc.

The attorney and her assistant do lots of work to collect the evidence – that the lawmaker really did say what he said, that the journalists didn't distort the basic message of his speech, and so on. Needless to say, all of this is useless. The final verdict is given to the female judge by the communist party or the state police agents or who was that. Of course that the lawsuit is unsuccessful and the lawmaker is acquitted at the end.

Meanwhile, the attorney and her husband are being harassed in various ways, the husband is fired from his job (a physician in Prague) after some completely fabricated accusations, children are being used to punish the inconvenient folks, too, and so on. All such things were routinely happening in Czechoslovakia after August 1968 as it was converging towards "normalization" of the 1970s which was the official term for the return of (neo-)Stalinism into Czechoslovakia.

The movie is really frustrating – I believe that it's somewhat more frustrating than how the life in the society looked to typical Czechoslovak observers at that time. The Polish nationality of the film director may be partly responsible for that. Their past is arguably more tragic than ours and this difference gets translated to different sentiments in the movies. Typical Czech movies about the totalitarian regimes usually contain "at least 50%" of the theme that the life wasn't "too different" from the life in democracy, people were doing lots of normal things that were making them happy, commies were not "100% bad" and anti-commies weren't "100% good", and so on. In this sense, this miniseries is much less ambiguous than most of the Czech-led movies about the era, it's much more "black and white", well, mostly black (=red).

At some moment in 1969, all the dreams about the return of democratization became hopeless, of course. The time mostly stopped for 20 years or so. I wasn't born yet in 1968 or 1969, of course. However, the end of the miniseries shows January 1989, 10 months before the Velvet Revolution, and I remember those times perfectly. The 20th anniversary of Palach's self-immolation led to a rally on the Wenceslaus Square that was rather violently suppressed by the communist cops.

Something was already happening in the society in early 1989. At that time, the time I was spending e.g. with Radio Free Europe every day was arguably maximized. Things were changing a bit during the bulk of 1989. For example, in the summer, the leader of the communist party Mr Milouš Jakeš visited Červený Hrádek, a village 1 mile from my house (technically an Eastern suburb of Pilsen) and made his infamous speech to his comrade that was informally called "The Lonely Fencepost". An audiotape was leaked (later, we could even see the video). I pretty much memorized this whole speech, more than 1 hour, because it was so funny.

In Fall 1989, East Germany began to transform as the citizens were mass-emigrating to West Germany through the West German embassies (including the one in Prague – this building was donated to West Germany for historical reasons). Things were simply in place for the reaction to the November 17th, 1989 student rally to be powerful and groundbreaking.

Many of the communist folks – and ordinary people (sometimes silently) collaborating with the pro-Soviet forces – were behaving really nastily, hurting their fellow citizens for their own profit. They made me angry once again. These were bad times that encouraged the most unethical layers that exist within each human. However, I must say that the main difference between these neo-Stalinists and the environmentalists that I am able to see is that the environmentalists don't possess the tanks which changes all the events a little bit. I am sure that if it were generally understood that the climate alarmists control the police and other enforcement forces, things would be as dark as they were in Czechoslovakia of the "normalization" era.

There is a visual aspect of Czech movies, especially those about the dark eras, by which they differ from the Hollywood films. The Hollywood films almost always feature actors and actresses who are pretty, handsome, and physically attractive. The Czech movies really do show "ordinary people" who aren't attractive (the major exception in this movie is the attorney, Ms Burešová, of course). In some sense, it's true for all Czech movies. Despite the fact that you may find lots of really hot Czech babes, for example, it's generally agreed that this is not the decisive criterion for someone to become a top actress (and it's not too different in the case of men, either). I have mixed feelings about the question which of the approaches to cinematography is better. Of course that I tend to agree that the physical attractiveness shouldn't be primary. On the other hand, I may prefer to watch movies with attractive stars and I think it's wrong if the actors' ugliness is automatically interpreted as their artistic superiority. ;-)

Only in 1990, after the fall of communism, Slovak inventor Mr Štefan Klein began to work on his dream of a flying car. Now, he is showing this Aeromobil 2.5 prototype. The version Aeromobil 3.0 will be sold to dreamers like himself (or you?). See

Some of the global media's reactions are bizarre. For example, Fox News in the previous link states "This Eastern European country [Slovakia] isn’t known for its car industry, which might explain why it birthed such an outlandish vehicle." That's quite a weird statement given the fact that Slovakia has the highest production of cars per capita in the world.

U.S. diplomats in Prague boast their skills in Czech tongue twisters. After the ambassador's introduction in broken Czech (welcome here in Prague. Here, at the U.S. embassy, we can speak a Good Czech [sic]), they start with "strč prst skrz krk" – "push your finger through your throat" where "r" is the only "vowel". Teji is very good. Sonnet is perfect – I couldn't figure out she is not Czech. Rallan is fine, Sherry is better.

Nick continues with "třista třicet tři stříbrných stříkaček stříkalo přes třista třicet tři stříbrných střech" which means "333 silver sprinklers were splashing around 333 silver roofs" and is meant to train you to pronounce "ř". He is lousy. Minta is even worse. Alex's pronunciation is nearly perfect again but he's a bit slow, so he sounds like a somewhat retarded native Czech speaker. Ralan is fast, impressive, the pronunciation is free of serious mistakes but the accent still decidedly non-Czech.

Finally, Teji starts with "bylo-li libo limo? Toliko nebylo-li by pivo" which essentially means "would you/anyone like a lemonade? Only if beer were not available" (it is not the most natural choice of words for this short Czech conversation but it is grammatically perfectly valid) and it is hard because while it repeats very simple, mutually similar syllables with 1 consonant and 1 vowel, their precise ordering is a bit difficult to remember and reproduce and the regularity of the alternation of vowels and consonants arguably makes it harder to reproduce the right order – a lack of structure. Teji is fine although the accent is a foreigner's one. Nick is similar. Sonnet is better than them but it's less authentic Czech than her previous sentence – especially the intonation. Robert's intonation is even worse, of course. Sherry isn't bad but she has really permuted some syllables, like "tokoli" instead of "toliko". ;-)

Karel Gott's 1978 cover of "All By Myself" by Eric Carmen. The lyrics is very sad and has been interpreted as a song about Palach. The chorus asks: Where did he go at that time? My brother Jan/John? ... He was young and he loved the world, it's sad he's gone but I am happy that he has lived at all. Ironically enough, at the same time, Gott also signed "Anticharter 77" by which the communist regime competed with Charter 77 – so he became an official artist of the communist regime of a sort, a pillar of the totalitarian entertainment, we sometimes like to say.

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