In the late-night hours between August 20th and 21st, 1968, tanks from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany and Poland began to roll into Czechoslovakia during the Warsaw Pact invasion of the country by communist forces.
Their purpose, which would prove successful during the next 20 years of “normalization”, was to put an immediate end to Prague Spring, a period of political liberalization begun by General Secretary of the Communist Party Antonín Novotný and continued by his successor Alexander Dubček. Among other things, the loosening of restrictions on the media under Prague Spring led to the Czech New Wave, one of the most celebrated film movements in what was then considered Eastern Europe.
While no military forces were mobilized to combat the Warsaw Pact invasion, nonviolent civilian protests turned what Soviet officials estimated would be a 4-day action into eight months of resistance, and would spark the eventual breakdown of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution two decades later.
One of the most famous acts of protest was conducted by a single man. Jan Palach set himself on fire during an act of self-immolation at the top of Prague’s Wenceslas Square on January 16, 1969, and died from his injuries three days later.
The (excellent) recent HBO miniseries Burning Bush, directed by Agnieszka Holland, examined what occurred in the aftermath of Palach’s self-immolation, as a young lawyer defends his family from communist oppressors who seek to discredit his legacy.
Now, a new movie about Jan Palach, focusing on the last few months of his life during the Soviet invasion following August 1968, is slated to premiere on the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Simply titled Jan Palach, the new film from director Robert Sedláček (Pravidla lži, Rodina je základ státu) stars stage actor Viktor Zavadil in the titular role, with Zuzana Bydžovská as his mother, Denisa Barešová as his girlfriend, Michal Balcar as his brother, and Jan Vondráček as a university professor.
Where Burning Bush focused on the aftermath of Palach’s self-immolation, Jan Palach will detail his experiences during the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and his fateful ultimate act of protest.
Filming for Jan Palach took place in Prague and other cities around the Czech Republic last summer. While scenes featuring Soviet tanks were shot at the Rudolfinum and nearby Mánes Bridge in Prague, the Wenceslas Square self-immolation was re-created at Pardubice’s Pernštýnské náměstí.
While most new movies open on Thursdays in the Czech Republic, Jan Palach will premiere in cinemas throughout the country tomorrow, August 21, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.
An English-subtitled version of the film has yet to be confirmed, but look for it to pop up at central Prague cinemas in the near future.
East Germany had neither tanks nor soldiers involved in the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia. Unlike the West Germans, who repeated their destruction of Belgrade 1941 once again in NATO’s illegal war of 1999, East Germany was very much aware of the historical infamy if German soldiers once again marched on Prague.