In October last year, Piotr Szczęsny, a 54-year-old chemist and father of two, doused himself in petrol in front of the communist-era Palace of Culture and Science in central Warsaw then set himself on fire. The act was a protest against creeping authoritarianism under Poland’s populist right-wing government. Szczęsny died in hospital 10 days later.
“I love freedom first and that is why I decided to immolate myself, and I hope that my death will shake the consciences of many people,” he had written in a cogently argued manifesto that doubled as a public suicide note. In Poland, sympathisers hail him as a successor to Ryszard Siwiec – another Polish family man in his 50s, who set himself on fire in Warsaw’s national stadium in 1968 as a protest against the crushing of the Prague spring – and Jan Palach, the Czech student who self-immolated the following year. Yet Szczęsny’s act went almost completely unreported in the western press, with editors nervous about being seen to ascribe a political motive to his actions, an anxiety exacerbated by his history of depression.
As he lay dying in hospital, audiences at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester sat down to watch Parliament Square, an acclaimed play by James Fritz in which a female protagonist, overwhelmed by an unspecified dark turn in Britain’s politics, sets herself on fire in front of the Houses of Parliament. The play’s run in Manchester began the day before Szczęsny’s act of protest, and ended the day before his death. What does it say that we should have paid more attention to a fictional character’s radical act of protest than we did to an identical action by a real human being that resulted in his death? And does the coincidence of the two events suggest that dystopian fantasies are becoming increasingly difficult to separate from real life?
Such questions weigh heavily on Agnieszka Holland, the celebrated Polish film-maker who turned 70 last week. In 2013, Holland made Burning Bush, an HBO mini-series that begins with Palach’s self-immolation and explores the dilemmas of conformism and resistance that confronted those he left behind. Her new Netflix series, 1983, which is set in a dystopian recent Polish past in which communism never fell and authoritarianism never went away, has a similarly eerie theme.
My full interview with Agnieszka Holland can be found here.