“I think they did the right thing,” says maker of new Mašín brothers doc

Josef Mašín

A new documentary explores the story of the Mašín brothers group, three members of which shot their way from Communist Czechoslovakia to the West in 1953. Escape to Berlin, featuring extensive interviews with the now elderly Josef Mašín and his sister Zdena, is written and directed by Jan Novák. I spoke to him ahead of next week’s cinema release of the film.  

Photo: Petrov

“I have been working on this story for half my life. I wrote a book, which I later adapted into a radio version. Then I used a screenplay that I wrote – and originally sold to Tomáš Mašín [distant relation], the author of the [recent fiction] film Bratři, Brothers – as a comic book.

“Finally now I’m doing this documentary, because I think it’s a really important story and unfortunately here in the Czech Republic people still have a very strange idea of what the Mašíns accomplished and did.”

The tagline is that it’s one of the greatest stories of the Cold War. What make it such a great story?

Jan Novák | Photo: Juan Pablo Bertazza,  Radio Prague International

“It’s the hunt in East Germany, where up to 30,000 East German and Soviet troops are hunting down five young men. The Germans lose at least 10 people, some of them to friendly fire.

“And three of those guys make it to West Berlin and become American citizens eventually. Two are caught along the way and are hung in Prague in 1955.”

You interviewed at length Josef Mašín when he was already well into his 80s. He seems so tough – where does that toughness come from?

“I think it’s innate, I think he was born with it. It was refined through education. Both of those boys [Josef and older brother Ctirad] grew up in the shadow of arguably the greatest hero of the resistance to the Germans here [father Josef Mašín, executed in 1942]. They were taught to trade slaps if they were slapped.

“They proved it later, in the first batch of the Green Berets, of the [US] Special Forces. When in 1956 the Green Berets wanted to show what men they have to the president, to Eisenhower, they showed him the Mašíns.”

The Mašín brothers,  Ctirad and Josef with Milan Paumer around 1950 | Photo: Archives of Ctirad Mašín//Memory of the nation

Famously the Mašíns refused to come back to this country after the fall of communism. But it’s remarkable in the film how Josef Mašín comes so close – he comes to Germany with you and shows you where everything happens – but still wouldn’t come back here. Why not?

Ctirad and Josef Mašín | Photo: Archives ofBarbara Mašín / Don.Rumata,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“I don’t know if his heart is really in it. It’s the older brother, who has been dead for 10 or 11, who decided. He laid down the line and Josef is honouring it.

“I think he might be tempted to come back, if he was given a [state] award by the president, which keeps being discussed here every year.”

Very often when the Mašíns are discussed in this country they are called the “controversial”, “divisive” Mašíns [they killed people in Czechoslovakia as part of their resistance campaign]. I presume for you they are not divisive or controversial?

“Not at all. I think they did the right thing. To me they are symbols of the fact something was happening here against this totalitarian power which was destroying lives left and right. It is a symbol of how divided people are in the way they view the ‘50s.

"I am absolutely clear on the fact it was a completely criminal regime, that was not only stripping people of their property, which was bad enough, and locking up people in labour camps, and hanging people – they hung almost 300 people.

Iron curtain | Illustrative photo: Miloš Turek,  Radio Prague International

“But what blows my mind is that they refused to let people who didn’t agree with their attempt to completely redo a society, which had worked for thousands of years, go.

“They surrounded their very strange experiment in the way of organising society with barbed wire and shot people at the borders who didn’t want any part of it.

“Why not let them go? I know why they didn’t do it – because there would be nobody left.”

ÚTĚK DO BERLÍNA (2023) oficiální trailer