Streets are named after him in Poland, Luxembourg, France, England, and the Netherlands. The Old Town public square adjacent the Rudolfinum in Prague bears his name, as does the oldest rock club in Croatia. The Czechoslovakian Communist Party and their Soviet masters did not want anyone to remember his sacrifice, so they did their best to erase him from the public record, but the spark he lit would ignite a week of protests ten years later. Yet, despite his historical significance, he was still just a twenty-year-old man. The life and death of the Czech martyr re dramatized in Robert Sedlacek’s Jan Palach, which screens during Panorama Europe 2019.
Palach was a serious history student, who was quite earnest in his opinions, particularly when it came to supporting the Prague Spring reforms, but nobody would call him a fanatic. However, when the Soviet invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968 put a stop to Dubcek’s liberalization program in 1968, Palach subsequenty became somewhat depressed, but so did everyone else.
Most likely, Palach’s personal history contributed to his disillusionment. His father had been driven to his death by the Party’s harassment and the confiscation of his business. The son had already established his own record of quietly defying the Party, as we see in flashbacks to his youth Komsomol experiences. Naturally, he joins the protests against the Soviet occupation, but many of his fellow students join the protests, but they soon give into the inevitable—but not Palach.
In many ways (probably by design), Sedlacek’s Jan Palach makes the perfect companion film to Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush, which concentrates on the attempted cover-up of Palach’s sacrifice and the Party’s orchestrated campaign to destroy his friends and family. In contrast, Sedlacek and screenwriter Eva Kanturkova focus on the events leading up to his self-immolation and the event itself.
Of course, Jan Palach presents a dim view of the privations the people suffered under socialism and the human rights abuses committed by the invading Soviet military, but that is not the film’s reason for being. Instead, Sedlacek and company are more interested in humanizing Palach. In fact, they present a surprisingly balanced portrait. They do not try to make him out to be a secular saint, but his flaws make him human and his potential makes his loss even more tragic.
Viktor Zavadil’s sensitive and nuanced lead performance perfectly suits Sedlacek’s intimate approach to Palach’s story. Viewers really get a sense of the man and grieve for him accordingly. He also has some poignant scenes with Zuzana Bydzovska and Denisa Baresova, as his mother and girlfriend, respectively. Yet, Zavadil’s Palach always seems to be an outsider, standing somewhat aloof.
The media often associates the year 1969 with student protests, but they usually do not mean the protests of Polish students against the Polish government’s participation in the 1968 invasion and occupation. Nevertheless, it is probably far more relevant to our contemporary discourse than kneejerk tantrums of the New Left. To their credit, Sedlacek and Kanturkova mention it in passing. They also wholly and deeply succeed in their efforts to reclaim Palach’s narrative and individuality, on his behalf. Very highly recommended, Jan Palach screens this Sunday (5/12) at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of this year’s Panorama Europe.