The nominations for this year’s Academy Awards dropped this week, and the Best Picture category includes no less than two of the most Oscar-baiting of movie genres: the biographical feature. Biopics often tend to be well made and impressively acted, with an air of respectability that makes them very awards-friendly. However, they are also limited by the cinematic medium itself, trying to cram the remarkable events of a complex human being’s life into the time it would take that person to… well, watch a movie.
Robert Sedláček’s Jan Palach makes things a little easier for itself by narrowing the focus to the last year or so of the martyr’s life. After a brief intro set in 1952, where we see Palach as a young child lost in the snowy woods, we fast forward all the way to 1967 where he is now a student (Viktor Zavadil) digging ditches at a work camp in Kazakhstan. The work is hard and the food is basically gruel, but the sun is shining and there are girls to chat up. Here we get some sense of Palach’s strength of character when he sticks up for a Russian pal who gets in trouble with the Communist camp boss for boycotting the food.
After that, it’s back to Prague where Palach spends his time juggling his studies, a rather chaste romance with his girlfriend Helenka (Denisa Barešová) and visiting his widowed mother, a Communist Party member who can’t resist opening her son’s mail if it looks any way official. He gets accepted to Charles University and enjoys being in the presence of lively, politically engaged fellow students. In the background is increasing unrest, culminating in the Prague Spring of 1968.
Palach is enjoying another work-holiday in the vineyards of France when news of the Warsaw Pact troops subduing the rebellion reaches him. He returns home to Prague to find civilians standing up to tanks and guns without any backing from the Czechoslovak authorities, and sometimes paying with their lives.
Palach and his girlfriend are involved when a student protest is brutally put down by the police, and both take a beating for their troubles. Scared and demoralised, the student activists start shying away from further action, leading Palach to devise a shocking solo demonstration of his own…
Jan Palach has all the strengths and weaknesses of the genre, but its shortcomings are more harshly felt due to a vague screenplay that offers little in the way of insight. There is also something ghoulish in the way it leads us along a trail of clues to Palach’s eventual demise, giving an uneasy sense of being several steps ahead of the doomed student, inviting us to make assumptions well before he becomes aware of his own intentions.
Palach’s especially ghastly fate adds some awful suspense. You go in knowing that this is a story about a young man who burns himself to death and spend the film in a state of dreadful anticipation ahead of that moment. How will the director handle that final act of extreme protest? Will he really show it, or tastefully cut away? Might he leave it to our imagination, or perhaps go for something more abstract or lyrical?
So spoiler alert: you get to see the whole thing and it is deeply upsetting. I don’t think I’ve been so harrowed by a film since Grave of the Fireflies. I think it is worth revealing this because you should know that if you watch the film, it is likely to leave you in some state of distress by the end. Palach commits his act of self-immolation and then the film goes to credits with no epilogue, no coda, nothing to soften the blow. It just dumps you by the side of the road with those images and your thoughts.
Unfortunately, the film didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about the incident and offers little insight into Palach as a person. Viktor Zavadil puts in a steady, thoughtful performance, portraying Palach as a quiet, intelligent, sensitive, conscientious young man. He is politically-minded but not militant; he’s willing to stand up for himself and others, but he isn’t a troublemaker. Yet his inner thoughts remain largely off-limits and his facial expression doesn’t change all that much throughout the film. He doesn’t seem mentally unstable or driven to extremes by anger or futility, so what state of mind must he have been in to commit such an act?
The most troubling aspect is that he seems so completely ordinary – a little bit of an outsider, perhaps, but otherwise just a normal bloke. His hair does get a bit greasier and unkempt during his final days as if to indicate that he’s stopped caring about such things, but if that is intended to show a deterioration of his psychological state, it is pretty weak writing.
Instead, we’re left to follow former dissident and writer Eva Kantůrková’s speculative clues, dotted through the screenplay like a trail of breadcrumbs. A lighter is introduced early on, like a Chekhovian suicide weapon, but that turns out to be a red herring. We catch a glimpse of Thích Quảng Đức in a magazine, the Vietnamese monk who set himself alight in protest during the early 60s. In case we missed it, Palach checks out the horrific photos again later in greater detail. Ryszard Siwiec, the Polish accountant who killed himself in a similar fashion a few months before Palach, is also namechecked. Yet we get very little insight into what made Palach tick and he remains an enigma throughout. This is another shortcoming of the biopic – how much can it really reveal about a person? To varying extents, we all remain unknowable.
The film was released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1968 invasion, and if its intention was to remind everyone of Palach’s tragic last stand, it certainly does that as painfully as possible. I’m sure it will mean more to my Czech friends because the events of half a century ago still have a profound effect on the nation’s psyche. It is just odd that the film doesn’t try to offer any perspective on the incident – it is simply a forceful reiteration: Jan Palach did this for his country.
Jan Palach is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.