The Tunnel Movie Review

This 2001 production about East Germans fleeing to West Berlin focuses on one of many tunnel-building operations when the infamous wall was built in 1961, and centers on a famous athlete who defied his Communist oppressors. Dangers and triumphs make for considerable tension, while its overextended length at 150 minutes, due to it being written as a two-part series for German TV, riddles it with slow pacing, melodrama, and viewer fatigue. Which may explain its delay in achieving a theatrical release until 2005.

Harry Melchior (a very buff and credible Heino Ferch in a part based on the real-life Hasso Herschel), is an East German swimmer and a troublesome renegade in Communist-controlled Berlin--all the more so for winning the national swimming competition. But, as much as the authorities want to use his new celebrity for propagandistic purposes, he simply won't cooperate.

In fact, his desire to escape to the West with Lotte, his sister, and her family, has been made urgent by the construction of the wall. With the help of a forged passport and disguise, Melchior gets across the checkpoint, leaving Lotte behind, refusing to leave with her new baby. Safely in free Berlin, Melchior's meeting with his engineer friend Matthis (Sebastian Koch) leads to the possibility of building an escape tunnel under the wall and rescuing her when the baby is old enough.

Finding an abandoned warehouse in the neighborhood of Checkpoint Charlie, and a cooperative landlady who hands them the keys, they put together a crew with friends Fred (Felix Eitner) whose mother remains on the other side in a position to pass secret messages and Vic (Mehmet Kurtulus), an Italian-American G.I. They set up in the basement and digging begins in great secrecy. Enter Fritzi (Nicolette Krebitz), a spunky, earnest fraulein who pleads for a spot on the team in order to rescue her fiancé.

In this major subplot, Melchior is, at first, distrustful... until Fritzi saves his life in a near drowning incident. Contrived though it may be, this part of the story is properly restrained, as the distance between these romance-destined antagonists tightens, becomes playful, and then intimate as they grapple with the problem their mutual regard creates. The dilemma pays off with an emotional tension that proves to be a relief to the tedium of the digging operation.

Speaking of which, we don't see much dust, since it's the production crew (and a laborious screenplay) doing the real boring, but we get the idea of the scope, the construction details and dangers of the project as the East Germans become aware of planned tunnel escapes, and pursue them diligently. Relentless inspector (of the Stasi, presumably) Oberst Kruger (Uwe Kockisch) becomes the tiger on Melchior's tail throughout the months of earth removal and he provides the underlying dramatic tension. His discovery would destroy the work and the hopes, at best -- lead to executions, at worst.

Not a man to rage in the Nazi style, but a menace of psychological and physical proportion, Kruger plays a cunning game of cat and mouse by playing those remaining behind against their would-be liberators with threats of harm and imprisonment. Lotte takes turns with her husband and then Carola (Claudia Michelsen), Matthis's wife, in falling prey to his coercion.

When the tunnel is completed, the actual escape is an episode that director Roland Suso Richter and writer Johannes W. Betz can take pride in for building suspense and terror at a Hitchcockian level. Even though this story of fierce determination showed up in a Hollywood film, Escape From East Berlin, in 1962, this edition of The Tunnel revives interest in the cold-war episode with a fresh dramatization for another generation.

Aka Der Tunnel.

Cast & Crew

Comments

The Tunnel Rating

" Weak "

Rating: NR, 2001

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