“I envisioned this project as a cinematic experience rather than a mere ideological exploration”
– The Czech director discusses significant female roles, the shift to action-oriented and character-driven storytelling, and genre-blending in his Oscar-submitted film
Czech director Tomáš Mašín talks to Cineuropa about the decade-long journey to creating Brothers [+see also:
interview: Tomáš Mašín
film profile], adapting the Mašín brothers’ audacious flight from the Soviet bloc, emphasising the shift towards a more character-driven and action-centric narrative, and the crucial roles of female characters. He also discusses the organic interplay of different genres in the film’s storytelling. Brothers has been chosen as the Czech Republic’s official submission to the 2024 Academy Awards.
Cineuropa: This film has been a decade in the making, evolving significantly over the years, particularly in its narrative focus shifting towards the portrayal of female characters in a historically male-dominated setting. What prompted this change?
Tomáš Mašín: The change was sparked by an acknowledgement of the courageous roles women in the Mašín family played alongside men in the historically tumultuous times depicted in our film. The male characters, when faced with adversity, exhibit a confrontational energy, whereas the women exude a calm, resolute strength. This contrast in responding to adversity with equanimous courage intrigued me, and compelled a deeper exploration of the female perspective in our narrative.
You mentioned that you wanted to eschew a purely ideological or educational depiction of the political backdrop in favour of a more action-packed, dramatic, and character-driven narrative. Why so?
From the outset, I envisioned this project as a cinematic experience rather than a mere ideological exploration. The story is laden with action, dramatic turns, and rich, fleshed-out characters, all set against the backdrop of a family enduring two totalitarian regimes over a decade. This approach, I believe, makes the narrative much more relatable and engaging for the audience, allowing them to immerse themselves in the personal journeys of the characters, amidst the larger historical context.
The film traverses various genres — it’s a period drama, an action film, and towards the end, it becomes a survival story. Was this blending of genres a deliberate choice or an organic outcome of the narrative development?
The blend of genres emerged organically as the narrative evolved. Each genre lends a different lens through which the audience can engage with the story, whether it’s the historical setting, the action-packed sequences, or the human endurance showcased in the survival aspect of the narrative. This amalgam of genres enriches the storytelling.
The historical authenticity of the narrative, juxtaposed with the action-packed drama, presents a storytelling challenge. How did you balance staying true to the historical context while also delivering an engaging, action-driven narrative?
The key was to never let the historical facts overshadow the personal stories of our characters. While the historical setting provides a rich tapestry against which the narrative unfolds, at its core, the film is about human endurance, courage, and the indomitable spirit to stand against oppression, irrespective of the odds. The action sequences and dramatic turns are vehicles to propel the characters’ journeys forward, enabling the audience to engage with the story on a more visceral level, all while remaining grounded in the historical authenticity of the time.
Upon announcing that you are shooting the Mašín´s story, there was quite a stir in the Czech Republic, where there are dividing opinions on them. The controversy seems to revolve around whether the characters are heroes or villains. Did this debate impact the development or filming of your project in any way, especially in demystifying the narrative?
No, the controversy did not sway our narrative. The existing narrative, largely stemming from the communist era, had painted a rather one-dimensional, ideological picture which was carried over by media post-revolution as it’s a compelling narrative to sell. However, it’s unfortunate that even 30 years post-revolution, this black-and-white narrative persists, doing a disservice to the real story which is far more nuanced.
You mentioned that the debate continues, fuelled by social media discussions among the younger generation who didn’t live through those times. They’ve inherited certain labels and narratives from their parents or from the media. This seems to underscore a larger issue of historical understanding or the lack thereof. Could you elaborate on this?
Indeed, there’s a segment of younger individuals who haven’t lived through those times yet have adopted certain narratives from earlier generations or from social media. There’s a particular narrative that circulates about Ctirad Mašín killing an unarmed police officer, which isn’t entirely accurate. This officer was armed and serving a regime; had he not been disarmed, the outcome would have been lethal. The discussion tends to be binary and doesn’t account for the complex reality these individuals lived through. Judging their actions through today’s lens, without comprehending the oppressive circumstances they were under, is an oversimplification.
The aim of your film, as you mentioned, is not to glorify or vilify, but to humanise the protagonists Ctirad and Jozef Mašín and their friends in the rebellion. How have you ensured a balanced portrayal to prevent the narrative from swinging towards hero-worship or undue vilification?
The goal was to portray them as normal people, driven to act under extraordinary circumstances. This film is about a family wanting to stay together amidst external pressures. It’s not about reversing ideologies or painting a false, adulatory picture. I wanted the characters to come across as genuine people, allowing the audience to see them as normal individuals facing abnormal situations. Through this approach, we hoped to invite a more nuanced, empathetic understanding of their actions and the historical context they were set against.