Among many events held in connection with the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia was the premiere of a new film about Jan Palach. The student famously took his own life in a bid to rouse the nation from apathy, five months into the Soviet occupation.
In January 1969, just five months after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia, Jan Palach committed the ultimate sacrifice, setting himself on fire at the top end of Wenceslas Square in the centre of Prague. The 21-year-old died in hospital three days later and his funeral on January 25 became a symbol of national unity and protest against the occupiers.
The new film, simply called Palach, was written by one-time Charter 77 spokesperson Eva Kantůrková and focuses on the last months of his life. It describes his path from an affectionate son, devoted friend and sensitive and thoughtful student to becoming what he called ‘Torch number 1’, trying to find the motives that led him to commit such a radical action.
The movie’s director, Robert Sedláček, says that despite many Palach’s contemporaries still being alive, very little is known about him to this day.
“He was mysterious. It would be easy to say that he was an oddball who committed a desperate act. But I prefer to say that he was different. That doesn’t mean that he was necessarily better, but he definitely wasn’t a desperate man.
“He had people who were close to him, but his friends didn’t know each other. And what was most interesting when I met them is that they don’t lay any claim to him. He is part of their memories, painful memories, but they don’t judge him. And that really helped me in making the film.”
Sedláček, whose screenplays are usually tailor-made for specific actors, cast the young and relatively unknown actor Viktor Zavadil in the lead role:
“It was a deliberate decision. Some roles demand a blank sheet of paper, and it was the case with Jan Palach. No-one knows what went through his head. No one knows who he was. And then suddenly he does something unexpected and people realize who the person is.”
The director, whose previous films have focused on other significant moments in Czechoslovak history, admits that Jan Palach’s radical action was by far the most sensitive and difficult topic he has tackled. He also says he wanted to leave space for viewers to make their own interpretation of the event:
“Palach’s act was directed at all of us, even at future generations. Even those who didn’t live through that time have to deal with it. And I want it to be everybody’s property. This is what Palach wanted: Think whatever you like about it. This is me and that’s it.”