Agnieszka Holland’s absorbing, intelligent account of the fallout resulting from a young Czech student’s symbolic self-immolation at the close of the Prague Spring was produced for HBO Europe as a three-episode miniseries. That Burning Bush arrived in North America—at its full runtime of well over four hours—via a series of festival screenings and a two-week Film Forum run speaks both to the vagaries of international distribution and to the increasingly fading line between movie and TV aesthetics.

European filmmakers have always been quicker to recognize the possibilities of television than their American counterparts. Bergman, Fassbinder and Godard made some of their finest work for the small screen, often editing the result for U.S. exhibition. (More recent examples of this trend include Raul Ruiz’s magisterial Mysteries of Lisbon and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s occasionally thrilling yet finally unsatisfying Penance.) But though they are structured in some respects like TV series, carefully parceling their action out into coherent stand-alone episodes, films like Fanny and Alexander or Berlin Alexanderplatz tend to move more like movies. With their convoluted visual syntax, subtle uses of color and shade, thematic concealments, puzzling elisions, and temporal disruptions, they practically ask to be watched on a big screen in a darkened theater over extended periods of time. 

Holland, a veteran filmmaker who got her start working under Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Zanussi during an especially fertile period of Polish cinema history, has spent her career moving back and forth between the big screen and the small. Her recent directing credits include episodes of The Killing, Treme, and The Wire, and the visual language of Burning Bush is rooted in the conventions of contemporary A-list American TV drama: smooth, graceful camera movements, seamless editing, sophisticated but relatively straightforward-realist color palettes and lighting schemes (“handsome,” one might call them, although maybe one shouldn’t). Here, as in the majority of TV dramas, the images’ expressive range is somewhat restricted—in part due to the tighter time and budgetary restrictions faced even by well-funded TV shows, but also, one feels, in order to keep the formal qualities of the image from getting in the way of the development of character or the conveyance of narrative information.

Burning Bush

That narrative begins with what turns out to be its central incident—the self-immolation by 20-year-old Jan Palach in Prague’s packed Wenceslas Square on January 16, 1969, five months after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia—and soon splits into a handful of parallel strands. The way the movie zigzags between each of its several subplots is a feat of narrative structure only somewhat dampened by the score’s annoying habit of sliding into metronomic, pulsing patterns whenever the various storylines come to a head—a blunt device that makes for one of the movie’s most unfortunate nods to TV-drama convention. Ivan Trojan’s blunt-edged but honest police chief, ordered to pre-empt future acts of violent dissent (in the film, the Party authorities prefer the term “suicides”), is a major player in the first episode, but by episode two the film’s center has shifted decisively to Dagmar Burešová (Tatiana Pauhofová), a young lawyer who agrees to take the case of Palach’s bereaved mother and brother after the high-ranking Communist parliament member Vilém Nový (Martin Huba) gives a speech accusing the boy of having intended to fake his own death.

The question underlying the trial—and coming to surface in some of the film’s strongest, most challenging passages—is whether Palach’s deed was an honorable self-sacrifice, a desperate act performed under desperate circumstances, an unjustified rejection of life or, worse, a sign of madness. It was not, a colleague tells Burešová in one scene, the act of a normal man. (She replies that life under occupation is rarely what you’d call normal, either.) Young people can be willing to give their lives away too cheaply, an older resistance sympathizer insists to a group of student protestors. (Or they know what causes are worth a high price, the leader of the group, played by Vojtěch Kotek, snaps back.) If the film ends up—in a coda comprised of newsreel footage from the epochal Palach Week protests 20 years later—unequivocally celebrating Palach as a martyr for a noble cause, it is with full awareness that his initial sacrifice produced a chain of accidental, additional, involuntary martyrs.

One of Burning Bush’s strengths is its refusal to entirely demonize its villains or lionize its heroes. Burešová’s husband, a talented doctor, is one of the movie’s most sympathetic characters, but he can also be too rigid in his principles, to the point of coldly refusing to recognize his kind superior’s attempts to get him off the hook when the powers that be  frame him for slander. And her longtime coworker, who hands over a key piece of evidence to the authorities in exchange for his daughter’s safety, supplies one of the film’s most affecting subplots. There are, however, a handful too many such appeals for sympathy. An otherwise slimy government official and an aging, dotty Party secretary must give over a suspicious amount of their limited screen time to gratuitous mentions of their children and grandchildren, as if the fact of their having families were enough to mitigate in their defense. (This problem cuts both ways; Burešová’s scenes with her two cherubic young daughters strike me as occasionally over-determined.)

Burning Bush

Vilém Nový himself is one of the film’s best-drawn secondary figures, an aging, weary bureaucrat who once struggled to outpace the shadow of a prison sentence and now appears hardened by years of calculated misrule. “I am looking for the truth,” he tells Burešová in their single off-the-record conversation near the end of the film. When she answers him incredulously—“But you know that it’s all a lie”—he tells her that she doesn’t understand a thing: “I am a politician. And for a politician, the truth is what is beneficial for the nation.” That line manages both to throw the rest of the movie in focus and broaden its philosophical scope, but it also establishes a somewhat questionable moral dichotomy between truth-seekers like Burešová and Palach, out to uncover the raw, objective facts of the matter about life under communist rule, and cynical, Machiavellian relativists like Nový and his comrades.

What this dichotomy obscures is that Palach, more perhaps than any other figure portrayed the film, dealt more in symbolic than literal truths. His farewell letter billed him as part of a group of “torches” that most likely never existed, and his self-immolation was nothing if not a way of turning himself into a symbol for an oppressed people. It is this symbol that Burešová, among others, struggled to protect and preserve. Holland’s film shows passionately, urgently and convincingly that their struggle was both necessary and fully justified, which is, in the end, another way of saying that it was beneficial for the nation. Whether Burešová’s image of Palach’s act was true because it was beneficial or beneficial because it was true is a question perhaps no movie—or TV series—could answer.

Burning Bush is screening through June 24 at Film Forum and is available on Fandor outside the New York City area.