The Tunnel

Studio: Avatar Films
Directed by: Roland Suso Richter; Written by: Johannes W. Betz; Starring: Heino Ferch, Nicolette Krebitz, Sabastian Koch, Alexandra Maria Lara, and Uwe Kockisch

Sep 20, 2005 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


The Tunnel, which was broadcast on German television in 2001 and screened at Los Angeles’ Made in Germany festival later that year, is finally seeing a long-overdue—albeit limited—run on U.S. screens this year, leading up to its DVD release on October 4. Set in 1961, during the early stages of the Berlin Wall’s construction, The Tunnel takes a miraculous true story of courage and conviction, and improbably, finds a cinematic middle ground between the thrill-a-minute popcorn suspense of The Fugitive and Schindler's List’s harrowing, heart-wrenching account of lamentable recent history.

Written for the screen by Johannes W. Betz, The Tunnel centers on East German freestyle swimmer Harry Melchior (Heino Ferch), a newly crowned national champion who previously served four years in prison for his opposition to the Communist government. Harry holds a grudge against the regime and intends to flee, despite assurances from government officials that top athletes will be rewarded with good housing and a decent salary. Harry’s close friend, Matthis Hiller (Sabastian Koch), an engineer who fears the ramifications of East Berlin’s separation from the West, escapes with a group to West Germany through the sewers, but is separated from his wife in the frenzy. With the aid of his trusted comrades on the West German side, Matthis arranges Harry’s exit through Checkpoint Charlie with a disguise and fake passport. But Matthis’ emigration has left his wife Carola (Claudia Michelsen) vulnerable to pressures and interrogation from Colonel Kruger (Uwe Kockisch), a state security official who investigates illegal emigration.

Harry is hell-bent on finding a way to sneak his sister Lotte (Alexandra Maria Lara) and her daughter Ina across the border safely, but they too become the prey of Kruger subsequent to Harry’s disappearance. Harry and Matthis, who is equally determined to reunite with Carola on the West German side, concoct a plan to dig a 145-meter tunnel underneath the Berlin Wall. By luck, they find an abandoned factory near the Wall that has a cellar where they can break ground, and Matthis’ engineering expertise proves to be crucial, but the task is daunting and could take years without outside help. Harry begrudgingly agrees to recruit 10 more diggers who have hopes of bringing loved ones across, but among 32 potential emigrants and 15 diggers, any number of snitches could surface. One of the diggers brought on board is the feisty young Fritzi (Nicolette Krebitz), who has a fiancée on the other side, with whom she exchanges secret notes of encouragement along the emerging Wall. But as family members of Harry and Matthis are singled out and blackmailed by Colonel Kruger, so as to divulge the escapees’ intentions, the excavation turns out to be not only a longshot logistically, but also a race against exhausted funds and Kruger’s discovery of the tunnel, which has jeopardized the safety of those involved on both sides.

Director Roland Suso Richter masterfully negotiates the emotional stakes invested in his characters’ sacrifices with the visceral excitement of the outlandish plot taking shape. Informants are no less human in this film than the heroes, and seemingly everyone has something to lose in their frighteningly absurd circumstances, even the villainous Colonel Kruger. One way or another, these characters must confront themselves and their actions, whether in the innocent faces of their offspring, a reflection in a dresser mirror, or in a bathtub with a razor blade. 

A breathtaking sequence occurs when a young East German soldier guns down another young man as he attempts to hop the Wall. The soldier's hesitation is prolonged by imminent regret, and the horror of his savage act is so burdensome that it can only be released with further aggression. Richter depicts this scene metaphorically, from both sides of the Wall as well as above it, looking down.

On the flip side, The Tunnel also is largely an escape film of the action genre, and cinematographer Martin Langer does exceptional work, heightening the suspense by capturing chases illuminated by flashlights in dark sewers, or steering through the dim, claustrophobic confines of the tunnel itself. Ferch, as Harry, square-jawed and grimed through much of the picture, assumes the persona of the tragic action hero who leads with his chest and speaks more with intense glares than words.

Despite being a true story, and a remarkable one at that, The Tunnel can't seem to resist some Hollywood contrivances, and certain convenient plot developments were likely manufactured to keep the film under three hours.* But there are also welcome, sometimes romantic, respites from the persistent tension, including some stunning location shots. Early rock n’ roll is played on the West side of the border, where Harry and Fritzi enjoy a night out at a dance hall. And in another scene, two diggers happen upon a location shoot for Escape From East Berlin, which actually was filmed in Berlin at the time of these events. This leads to a plotline involving NBC contributing finances toward the tunnel's completion. NBC did in fact air an episode of the documentary-format NBC White Paper featuring the characters portrayed in The Tunnel. 

Great stories often don't have the fortune of resulting in great movies, but The Tunnel’s filmmakers keep their end of the bargain, revisiting an unfortunate era of our not-so-distant past with a solemn eye, while also evoking the luster of cinema treasures like Grand Illusion and The Great Escape along the way. 

The Tunnel is currently playing at Laemmle’s Fairfax 3. http://www.laemmle.com
Avatar Films is distributing the U.S. theatrical release. http://www.avatarfilms.com
Home Vision Entertainment will release The Tunnel on DVD on October 4. http://www.homevision.com

*The two-part German television version of The Tunnel is said to be about 20 minutes longer than the theatrical release. If that version elaborates on The Tunnel’s intriguing back story—which feels a bit rushed—then it would be an essential addition to the DVD.

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10



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