Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The WAC won't like this, but let me first mention my favorite Berlin Wall movie: from 2001, the German picture The Tunnel, by Roland Suso Richter. Late in the story, a couple of the conspirators on the West side of the Berlin Wall are lost, when they stumble onto a movie being made. The tunnel diggers run into a film crew on a set in the Tiergarten, working with a duplicate of a few feet of the Wall. We see the director's name - the famous Hollywood notable Robert Siodmak. For a moment the tunnellers are understandably disoriented.
They movie set they've come across is supposed to belong to Escape from East Berlin, a 1962 release from MGM that pounced on the topical story of a daring, real escape that had succeeded just a few months before. The famed Robert Siodmak (The Killers) returned to his homeland ten years before, and had already firmly re-established his German career. MGM paired star Don Murray with new discovery Christine Kaufmann (Town without Pity); actor Werner Klemperer helped assemble the cast of German locals. And the show was indeed filmed in West Berlin, not far from the real wall.
East Berliner Kurt Schröder (Don Murray) is not happy with the new wall dividing Berlin, but everyone he comes into contact with seems obsessed with it. He works as a chauffeur for an Army major and is having an affair with the Major's young wife. Things change when a mechanic friend, Günther (Horst Janson of Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter and Murphy's War) decides to escape by ramming his tow truck through a section of the Wall not yet reinforced. When it doesn't work, Kurt is left to deal with Günther's younger sister Erika (Christine Kaufmann). Karl prevents the foolish Erika from attempting to climb through the barbed wire in broad daylight: "What are you trying to do, commit suicide?" He then commits to a wild plan. His family's house is right next to the wall, so he'll dig a tunnel. Erika doesn't go home, because the police are watching her house. Karl gets help from his family and new colleagues like Ingeborg Schröder, a young woman who wants to escape with her baby daughter. Professor Jurgens (Kurt Waltzman) holds orchestra practice to mask the sound of drilling, and the effort miraculously escapes visits by the police. A prospective boarder (Werner Klemperer) figures out what they're up to, leading Kurt to fear a blackmail attempt. Can they complete the tunnel before they're caught? The telephone people prepare to dig right in the tunnel's path, and a concrete foundation wall blocks their way. Kurt figures that they have only two days to break through.
Escape from East Berlin is a decent drama about a big subject in 1962, when East and West had their atomic arsenals at the ready, post- The Bay of Pigs but pre- the Cuban Missile Crisis. Having been stymied by the Berlin Airlift of ten years before, the East Germans reacted to mass defections by throwing up a barrier that defied every notion of modern freedom. If the Commies couldn't fend off Western provocation and temptation, they'd lock the doors.
The film begins with a newsreel-style prologue that leaves no doubt about the production's anti-East German, anti-Soviet attitude. Among the film clips shown is the painful-looking shot of an East Berlin woman, running and ducking through a patch of barbed wire, being clotheslined across the face and falling roughly down. If anything the film is underestimates the East German police. The men checking out Kurt's house do a sloppy job, and the screenplay further insults the East Germans by having the Army representative cuckolded by our young hero. Everything I've read about the East German watchdogs shows them to be depressingly efficient and ruthless, and certainly nobody's fools.
Don Murray is about as German as a Denver Omelette but he wears a woolen sweater well. He mixes okay with a large group of local pros picked for their ability to sound natural speaking English with a stage-German accent. Christine Kaufmann begins as a total innocent, which is credible since the actress was herself barely sixteen years old; on the next year's Taras Bulba she'd snag Hollywood star Tony Curtis and break up one of the most visible of show-biz marriages. That's the Cold War for ya.
Kurt doesn't tell Erika that her brother is pushing up lilacs until late in the show, a ploy that provides some personal tension. They also have to pretend to be making out, to fool some too-lenient border guards. Besides that, the only real drama going is the Big Dig. Possible failure rises from three different directions, and Kurt finds out only at the last second that he's been betrayed from an unexpected quarter.
Director Siodmak doesn't pull out any of his old expressionist tricks in this straightforward telling. People get muddy digging but there's no intimate feel of clawing one's way through earth and bricks, taking last-minute subterranean detours around underground obstructions. At the finish, they're digging perilously close to the surface, and chop through a bundle of telephone wires. They're saved from that goof by the inefficiency of the East German bureaucracy: the phone diggers get there pretty quick, but the rule-following guards stall them until the following Monday because they don't have the proper work permit. You never know - given a chance, the telephone workers might themselves take a powder over the wall. 1
The opening escape attempt with the tow truck is pretty well done, even if we think the truck is going only half as fast as it should. Siodmak's suspense mechanics are fine, as are the film's technical details. One excellent scene sees Erika almost caught, but saved when the Polizei bust down a door to a room weakened and still unrepaired from the Allied bombings of seventeen years before. We generally like the film's characters, although none of them seem like real people we want to escape. And after the prologue, the film lays off slamming the Commies to excess. The situation speaks for itself; if anybody can take the side of the East German regime on this issue, I'd really like to hear the arguments.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Escape from East Berlin is a clean enhanced transfer of this film that really isn't obsolete; it's a fair-enough docu-drama record of historical truth. The camerawork is fine, and the music score a little over-dramatic but serviceable. Things get pretty tense at the end.
A trailer included uses every bit of violent action in the picture.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Escape from East Berlin DVD-R rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 6, 2015
1. Which reminds me of a high school film I made (and still have) that was shown at an assembly back at Pacific High in San Bernardino. They had just erected a chain-link security fence around the whole school, so my skit had us sneaking through like the prisoners of The Great Escape. We even used the soundtrack theme. Our school security guard, who everybody liked, played a part in the skit (without even asking for permission), which ended with us distracting him so scores of students could sneak out behind his back. I just remembered that silly story.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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