Monday, June 9, 2014

In BURNING BUSH, Poland's Agnieszka Holland tackles Russian repression in Czechoslovakia

From post-WWII through the fall of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe under USSR-sponsored Communism was no fun fest. And though we've had plenty of filmic examples of life under these various Communist regimes (from Knife in the Water to The Lives of Others), few have captured that peculiar sense of near-constant drudgery and dread as well as does Agnieszka Holland in her three-part, four-hour BURNING BUSH (Horící ker), made for HBO Europe.

Ms Holland, shown at right, has by now given us so many intelligent and provocative dramas about her home country and certain neighboring states that Burning Bush -- which tells of the student group and its members who began to sacrifice themselves as human torches on the altar of democracy after the Russians cracked down on Czechoslovakia in those depressing days post-Prague Spring -- seems a more than fitting capper to her pretty much brilliant career. I'm not saying it's over, either; after this one, Holland directed the recent remake of Rosemary's Baby for TV. (Are only Polish directors allowed to film the Ira Levin novel?)

The event that begins the movie (the initial immolation, above) would seem to be horrible enough. But, then, most of us Americans haven't a clue to the kind of life lived under governments which were themselves under the thumb of their USSR masters. This life would include near-constant surveillance, betrayals large and small, and careers stunted or ended by behavior that might seem exemplary in western society. (Having said this, I do realize that this sort of life is now becoming more and more prevalent here in America, too.)

So, yes, as awful as is the first burning and another that follows fairly soon after, how the state -- the Czech powers that serve their Russian masters -- handles all this becomes the heart of the movie and proves worse even than the burnings themselves. To Holland's great credit, she allows us to understand why the Czechs in power would want to placate the Russians. (They must prevent the burning as being seen as an act of defiance of Russian control, or tanks will again invade the country and its already shaky government may be removed altogether.) But to what lengths these subservient Czechs go and how shabbily, how nastily they carry these out makes for one of the bleakest looks yet at the Eastern block.

As written by newcomer, Stephan Hulik, the teleplay involves a wide range of characters -- from the student group that initiates the bombings (some of whom are shown below) to the family (above) of the first victim/suicide, Jan Palach; from the government officials who try to tarnish the dead boy as being a dupe of right-wing fascists to the lawyer, a woman, who takes on the case when that family sues the official who slandered their son; from that lawyer's boss, whose daughter is part of the student group, to the lawyer's husband, a doctor who loses his hospital job -- weaving their stories together with credibility and finesse.

Doing the right thing has seldom seemed so fraught and devastating, nor has decency appeared so utterly useless. Betrayals are everywhere, with family pitted against friend. The 60s, Czech-style, are recreated here with surprising efficiency and a smart memory, from the homes and apartments and what they contain to fashions and automobiles.

The film is full of fine performances, with standouts from Tatiana Pauhofová (above, right) as the lawyer, Jaroslava Pokorná (three photos above, as well as bottom, left) as the mother of Jan Palach, Jan Budar (below) as the doctor/husband, and Martin Huba (at bottom, right) as the official who tries to destroy the reputation of Jan Palach. Everyone is a victim here, but some seem all too eager to betray and profit from that betrayal, while others betray because they want to save their own family. Ms Holland and Mr. Hulik keep a tight rein on the movie's morality; few characters merge totally unscathed.

Holland creates a mood of uneasiness both visually (the main cinematographer was Martin Struba) and musically (the score is by Antoni Komaza-Lazarkeiwicz) that hangs over the entire film. Instead of a happy ending, we get worse and then worse. While the events shown here happened 45 years ago, there is -- as those who stay for the end credits will learn -- a posthumous bit of upbeat news. That's nice. But it's way too late. It' s also about, as ever, a state congratulating itself for doing now what it didn't have the balls to do then.

Burning Bush, from Kino Lorber and running 240 minutes, will open in New York City this Wednesday, June 11, at Film Forum. Because of the lengthy running time, the film will be divided into two parts but with only a single admission charge for both. Part One lasts 160 minutes, Part Two only 80 minutes. If you do not wish to see the film at consecutive screenings, a voucher will be distributed to those patrons who prefer to come back later to see Part Two. In the weeks to come, it will shown in several other cities, too. Click here then scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates.

To make it even easier to see this exemplary piece of historical drama, the film also makes its streaming debut via FANDOR on the same day as its theatrical release, Wednesday, June 11.

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