Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Home Vision Enertainment has been subsumed into the Image Enertainment DVD company, yet its output just keeps getting better. This excellent escape drama from Germany is only four years old and made little or no theatrical impact in the states. As is expected of HVE discs, the presentation is near-perfect. The package text makes the bold claim that this is the most exciting German movie since Das Boot, a promise that the movie fulfills. The Tunnel is an extremely intelligent thriller that champions the courage and determination of daring young Berliners that risked all to organize mass escapes from East Germany.
When the Communists close the border in Berlin, swimming champion Harry Melchior (Heino Ferch) defies the new DDR security chief Krüger (Uwe Kockisch) by retiring from competition. He's forced to cross over with forged papers and joins a growing group of conspirators on the West side determined to smuggle sweethearts and families over, under or through the wall. Harry becomes the unofficial leader of a tunnel-digging crew and witnesses scores of desperate escape attempts. With Krüger using blackmail and the threat of torture on relatives left behind, the diggers' biggest problem is that someone will inform on them.
The Tunnel is an expertly scripted composite of a number of dramatic escape stories. As each of our heroes is fighting to be reunited with a loved one it is impossible not to get caught up in their struggle. We've seen Berlin Wall escape movies before and The Tunnel easily outshines them all. 1960s films concentrated on the political outrage represented by the wall, while Walt Disney eventually made a family film about a true-life balloon escape that couldn't avoid coming across as The Von Trapp Family Outwits the Commies. This picture quickly sketches the personal situations of several determined young men. Matthis (Sebastian Koch) is an early escapee who accidentally became separated from his pregnant wife. Fred (Felix Eitner) wants to rescue his mother. And Harry Melchior, himself a former political detainee of the Communists, seeks to free his beloved sister Lotte (Alexandra Maria Lara) along with her husband and daughter.
The story shapes up as a unique caper film. The resourceful plotters slip in and out of East Berlin on forged passports, taking messages to those awaiting rescue. The need to hurry the plan forces them to accept outside help, increasing the risk of detection by informers. One suspicious young woman named Fritzi (Nicolette Krebitz) at first appears to be a spy but shows herself a loyal digger obsessed with rescuing her own fiancée. She also becomes involved with Harry, forming an anxious triangle that only adds to the tension. The plotters witness East Berliners escaping by ones and twos, including a devilishly clever escape in which a busload of people ram through the wall under a hail of machine gun fire. The film also re-creates a famous incident in which a solitary young man was shot at the wall and left to bleed to death while West Berliners watched helplessly.
This show could well be called a German Pride movie, as our young heroes have to deal with more than just their East German enemies. An NBC news team actually covered the digging of one tunnel for a special news documentary, an incident treated as more of a problem than a blessing. Arrogant American correspondents practically blackmail the tunnelers into allowing the shoot and callously negotiate a price for their cooperation. The conspirators run into another crew making a movie about tunnel diggers (Robert Siodmak made just such a film soon after the Wall went up) and find them curiously unsympathetic to their cause.
The digger who wants to free his mother had a father executed (by the Russians?) in WW2. If the father was a Nazi officer the film pointedly makes no apologies ... and celebrates his mother's act of defiance when it looks as if she'll be forced to betray her son. Johannes W. Betz' script shows uncommon maturity by extending compassion for people forced to inform, and doesn't score easy points by segregating its cast into villains and heroes. Even the East German border guards are allowed to anguish over their cruel duty.
The acting is uniformly excellent, with the imposing and athletic Heino Ferch showing a greater sympathetic range than Russell Crowe. Alexandra Maria Lara, Nicolette Krebitz and Sebastian Koch could easily be international stars if movie-goers weren't so phobic about foreign languages.
The Tunnel is a long picture and may seem a trifle slow now and then. The producers throw in an emotionally valid sex scene that could be criticized as a commercial ploy. But the finale tightens the suspense beautifully, with the crucial escape threatened by several simultaneous unforseen problems. As these are resolved by character revelations as well as narrative twists, the escape ends on a highly satisfactory note. If it were given a wider U.S. release, The Tunnel would have been a sure crowd-pleaser.
Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of The Tunnel has a stunningly good image and great audio. The 'scope format doesn't make the tunneling scenes any less claustrophobic and the period details are fine, especially the dance club where Harry takes Fritzi -- Chubby Checker always transfers well to film.
The English subtitles are clear. A good making-of docu for German TV shows a happy crew covering the young-hunk stars with mud and water for the digging scenes and also profiles Hasso Herschel, the real tunnel-digger on which the Harry Melchior character is based. The docu spells out the historical context of the tale with admirable clarity and the liner notes by Maitland McDonagh put the political action into even better perspective.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Tunnel rates:
Sound: Excellent German (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)
Supplements: Making-of Featurette, Theatrical trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 14, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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