A German import just now making its way across the Atlantic, the 2001 nailbiter The Tunnel is a riveting, real-life thriller; one of the rare films to name-check the seminal Das Boot and actually live up to the comparison, director Roland Suso Richter's film is compelling and harrowing, reminding me quite a bit of Oliver Hirschbiegel's superb Downfall (and not just because Alexandra Maria Lara stars in both) in the way a painful, divisive event from German history is dissected with clear, unblinking precision. By eschewing commentary for a more documentary-based approach, both films reveal a nation not necessarily at ease with its past, but nevertheless working towards acceptance.
Based upon the real-life story of Hasso Herschel, The Tunnel focuses on champion East German swimmer Harry Melchior (Heino Ferch), who, upon bifurcation of Berlin in the early Sixties, attempts the unthinkable: escape from East Berlin into the West. Melchior, an outspoken critic of the system and having been previously imprisoned by the German government, wants to build an escape route to save his sister (Lara) and family. With help from his friends, Melchior orchestrates the construction of a massive tunnel, burrowing deep into West Berlin; the project is every bit as daring as it is time-consuming – constantly on watch and highly paranoid, Melchior and his team of friends must contend with the sheer scope of the tunnel as well as possibly being found out by the East German authorities.
Thematically, there's more than a little of The Great Escape coursing through the narrative veins of The Tunnel; Johnannes W. Betz's screenplay avoids any direct bites, but the white-knuckle tension and gritty sense of place lends a very palpable authenticity to this unbelievably true story. The Tunnel is every bit as engaging as any mindless Hollywood actioner, but with a healthy dollop of sociopolitical intrigue and suspense ladled on for good measure.
Offered in a crisp 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, The Tunnel nicely evokes the grim, claustrophobic environs in which the story takes place – as befits a recent production, there's no noticeable defects, save for a slight (and likely intentional) graininess. A very clean, sharp image.
Presented with a robust German Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, dialogue and score are heard free of distortion or drop-out, with appreciable bass and surround effects scattered throughout the film. It's a nice aural compliment to the excellent visuals. Optional English subtitles are also included.
On the surface, it doesn't look as though much supplemental material has been included but what's available is worth spending time with – a 25 minute making of featurette details the back story of The Tunnel as well as providing ample looks at the on-set activity; trailers for The Tunnel, The Seagull's Laughter and The Inheritance are also included as are liner notes by TV Guide.com critic Maitland McDonagh.
Fans of intelligent, tightly wound political thrillers will find as much to enjoy in The Tunnel as those who simply like well-drawn characters extricating themselves from seemingly impossible situations. The real-life drama that fuels The Tunnel only makes it that much more compelling – highly recommended.