This beautifully directed and acted miniseries by Polish female-director Agnieszka Holland will not only touch you deeply, it will also teach you a history lesson about the former communist Czechoslovakia and events of 1968/1969. The invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russian army in August 1968 extinguished the democratic revolution brewing within the communist party, known as Prague Spring. The invasion was met by public anger and violent protests and escalated when Jan Palach, a 21 year old student of history, set himself on fire several months later. The official communist government, watched carefully by Moscow, did everything in their power to distort the truth and to dismiss the act of Jan Palach. They destroyed lives and careers, blackmailed everyone involved, lied. The process of Jan’s family, led by a young and talented lawyer Dagmar Buresova, against a high communist official was doomed to be lost in view of the political atmosphere and pressure. In the end, the communist government destroyed even Palach’s grave. No one was supposed to remember his legacy. Prague Spring, the period of hope, was followed by a period of repressions and darkness.
Having been born in Czechoslovakia in 1968, just one month after the Russian tanks rolled into Prague, this story touches me on a very deep personal level. It also fills in the gaps in history that were not taught at school. Growing up in the communist Czechoslovakia, we were not supposed to know about Jan Palach and the truth about years 1968/69. The director Agnieszka Holland, who studied film in Prague and was personally affected by these same events, knows this part of our history very well. You can feel authenticity in her miniseries all the way to the smallest detail and she skillfully blends the historical footage of Russian tanks in Prague and people’s disgust and anger into her powerful movie. In the final historical video clip from the Velvet revolution 20 years later, showing hundreds of thousands of people on the same square where Jan Palach became a live torch, I—a 21 year old student myself—was there. Together we were protesting against communist government and fighting for democracy in my country once more. Only this time, we succeeded.