This interview with film producer Robert Prokopp is part two of The Budapest Times’ series of articles on the events of 1989 that helped end the Cold War.
The removal of barriers on the Austrian border became a magnet for thousands of East German refugees in Hungarian camps in summer 1989. Some of them trusted that in time there would be a general border opening, others took their fate in their hands and tried escaping to Austria through the green border area; alone or in groups, some tried escaping several times until they succeeded. Thanks to Prokopp and three of his colleagues, one of the greatest escapes was documented on film. On 22 August 1989 the film team captured the flight of about 150 East Germans from a refugee camp in Zugliget, Budapest, and they joined their exit over the border near Sopron and captured their first free moments on Austrian soil.
How did you begin filming?
We had a production company at that time in Munich. My business partner, Ferenc Tolvaly, also had Hungarian roots but he was living in Siebenbürgen [Romania] and working as a film director. He had a good sense for film topics and a strong journalistic instinct. We heard about the Pan-European Picnic [19 August 1989] in the media and about when the borders were open for a short time and a lot of German Democratic Republic citizens got through. We reacted quite quickly and packed our things and we arrived on the next day, which must have been 20 August, in Sopron.
What happened after that?
We travelled on from Sopron to a tent camp in Kőbánya in Budapest and we tried talking to the GDR citizens. We were not very successful. They gave us answers like, ”We are not here at all” or “We are coming back from Bulgaria and we just want to spend a night here”. They did not know anything, they did not hear the news, did not read the newspapers and they did not dare to speak openly about such things with each other. It was crazy; the people did not trust each other enough to say openly why they were there and what they were planning. OK, they could not tell in the middle of August yet whether a conversation with us might have some bad consequences for their relatives staying in the GDR. There was just one woman, who is in a scene at the beginning of our film, who bravely stood in front of our camera and gave us a long monologue about freedom and her motives for the planned escape. In this camp we learned that in Zugliget the camp was built around a church.
After a couple of unhelpful actions the media were practically banned from the Zugliget camp, but your team was still allowed to go inside and they could even film and interview the refugees undisturbed. How did you manage that?
The director and I both went to the same Hungarian boarding school in Germany, the Burg Kastl, which was partly managed by Jesuits. It had a certain reputation, so Father Imre Kozma, who was responsible to supervise the camp, knew that someone coming from that background must be trustworthy. On the contrary, he used his rights as the house master against the journalists of Bild and strictly forbade them to enter, as they were only interested in chasing thrilling stories, without having any consideration. They had previously photographed some people and published the pictures. You could assume that these pictures were seen by the leaders in East Berlin, so the photographed people had to fear for their families residing there. To prevent such a thing happening again they hung a cardboard sign with the words “No press!” on the fence, which you can see in our film. Luckily this prohibition did not concern us.
There is a special scene we recorded at the camp about the visit of the emissaries from the German Foreign Office. They came in three black limousines, some men wearing black suits got out and they had suitcases with them. Can you imagine what was in the suitcases? Green West German passports printed fresh and not yet filled in. The Hungarian government knew nothing about that of course. This was an undercover operation.
The passports did not get you far, since the Hungarian entry stamp was missing, and without that leaving Hungary was not possible. So the refugees had to think how they could get through in another way. One of them had a canoe with him. He went to Lake Neusiedler with it, which has banks both in Hungary and Austria. He bought a six-pack of beer, rowed out on the lake, drank a few beers and emptied the rest of the cans into the water. Then he waved to a Hungarian police boat and said in a drunken voice: “Please excuse me, I am German and I am on vacation on the Austrian side. I slept in somehow and the current brought me to the Hungarian side.” So he managed to travel accompanied by the police to the other side to Mörbisch in Austria and he could leave freely. Such stories were certainly told around the camp. Of course that was a one-time-only trick. However, everyone had their own ideas of how to escape.
How was the atmosphere in the camp?
The situation was absolutely uncertain. The people in the camp did not know whether Hungary would give them a hard time. Would Moscow put pressure on them? Would they send them back to the GDR? Would they stay here only for three more days of three more months? They knew nothing. Everyone was nervous; they were stressed to the limit. The mass dynamics also contributed to that. In such a situation a mouse is turned into an elephant, some people are bullied, and suspicions and accusations quickly rise whether someone is working for the Stasi. On the other hand it gave a certain safety to the people that the press was there, and in time they developed trust towards us.
Two families that we were in contact with shared their escape plans with us. There was a refugee leading them and they introduced us to him. Suddenly they said: “Tomorrow morning early we will start it.” There was a sort of staff meeting the next morning. All vehicles were already standing there with the engine running and everyone had a map in their hands. Then they said: “We make the first stop in one hour in Agárd next to the lake of Velence.” They chose this destination, which is not directly on the shortest route towards the Austrian border, for security reasons. Shortly after that all the Trabis drove away in different directions. They did not want to call attention to themselves. We also drove away. We arrived at the agreed place at ten minutes before one – but no one else was there. Five minutes before one – still no one. We started to think that we had been cheated but exactly at one everyone arrived. The next meeting point was supposed to be in Csorna, after leaving Győr. So they went on. On the way we heard some news on the radio; we learned about a death at the Hungarian-Austrian border the previous day this way. It was not known at that time that it was only an unfortunate accident. When we got out of our cars in Csorna, the air was full of tension.
Did anyone turn back upon hearing that news?
No one! They were really willing to cope with any kind of difficulty. Freedom, if you do not have it seems like the best thing in the world. Also, the people there were all young, and hope is an incredible catalyst, when you see a chance that you can hold on to.
How did it continue?
We covered the last part of the road to Sopron and to the border in a column. We agreed that we would not stop at any red light. We pressed the horn and we waved white cloths but the column was not to be broken under any circumstance. We reached Sopron this way – where the poster advertising the Pan-European Picnic that took place three days earlier was still hanging – and continued to the border station.
The scenes that you filmed at the border station were the most impressive pictures in your movie.
Imagine that there were about 50 vehicles stopping on the side strip just before the border station and about 150 people got out. In a brisk stroll they moved towards the border station in a determined way. The fences next to the station had already been removed and we were hoping that there were no mines there either. In the film there is an absurd scene at this moment: a family gets out of their Trabi and they start to run but after a few steps the father stops and turns back, runs to the car and locks it. He will never see this car again, I thought. Our hearts are beating in our heads and he still has the nerves to run back to close his Trabi. Even in situations like that a German is still a German. We also noticed that the refugees covered the distance just with a small suitcase or nothing at all. No luggage or backpacks. Nothing that could be a disadvantage during the escape. It also showed how much they trusted that they would be provided with necessities on the other side.
No, we could cross the border normally with our West German passports. In order to be able to capture the refugees on the other side of the border with the camera, we drove right through with our passports held high. The director, the camera man and the technician got through. I was the only one who was stopped. “Do you have permission to film?” the border patrol man asked me. I reached for my permission for filming, which I had typed that morning myself with great care in my hotel room, and gave it to him. “And who signed it?” he asked me. I told him: “The officer who was on duty.” Unfortunately that person was himself, so I was arrested and detained for an hour until they found out what they should do with me. I felt quite uneasy. They took away my passport and put me in this cell. In addition, it is true that I was German but I had Budapest as the place of birth in my passport. In the meantime, the border policemen were swearing in their worst Hungarian because of the traffic jam in front of the border station. The Trabis were all standing on the street. He took me out of the cell and he said: “You brought this upon us, so go on now and move the Trabis out of the way.”
Yes! And I had never driven a Trabi before. Finally, along with some people who were standing in the jam and getting impatient, we pushed all the vehicles from the street to the ditch. After all that I got my passport back. When my staff came back from Austria, this officer came to us again. He wanted to confiscate the filmed material. I told him: “I am asking you, please think about it. We have already been in Austria with the material. Why should we have brought it back? The ORF [the Austrian national public broadcaster] already has it and it will be played in the news this evening.” This was of course just a great bluff but it worked. Finally the officer let us pass.
How did you get the material over to Germany then?
We called a friend who we knew was flying to Munich on the same day and then we drove back to Budapest as soon as possible. My heart was beating like a drum and I was checking constantly if we were being followed. The secret police had unlimited power over us as well. However, everything went down smoothly. We handed over the tapes at the airport and our friend delivered it to the Bayerischer Rundfunk [Bavarian Broadcasting] the same day.
Did you think on that day that the last weeks of the GDR had begun?
No. We were too much involved in things at that time. There had been just too much happening that you could not analyse or even put anywhere. We just went along with it.
Did the experiences that you had making this documentary influence you when you decided to move back to Hungary?
Yes, certainly. As we were filming we got to know a lot of people and collected a lot of experience. The advertising industry practically did not exist after the political turn in Hungary. In the advertisements there were slogans like “Buy shoes in the shoe shop”. So the time was absolutely ripe for us. In addition I already knew my way around here and I had built up a good network. We founded our first company in the beginning of 1990.
Robert Prokopp lives in Budapest today with his Hungarian wife and son. As a producer he was co-founder and co-owner of TV2, one of the first commercial TV channels in Hungary. Nowadays he works as an advisor for the television production company Constantin Entertainment Budapest, which he also co-founded.