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Cinema Signal:

Stasi:
The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police

. "The Tunnel" (aka, "Der Tunnel")
[Note: due to the unpredictable ways accents and diacritical marks are rendered in browsers, they do not appear in this review.]

This 2001 production about fleeing to freedom from East to West Germany focuses on one of many tunnel building episodes and a famous athlete who defied his communist overlords. Its dangers and triumphs make for considerable tension that are well plotted and staged with high potential, while its overextended length at 153 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 domestic theatrical release until 2005.


Harry Melchior (a part based on the real-life Hasso Herschel and played by a very buff and credible Heino Ferch), is a champion East German swimmer and a troublesome renegade in 1961 Berlin. All the more so for winning the swimming competition. But, as much as the goverment authorities want to use his new celebrity for their purposes, he simply won't cooperate.

In fact, his plan to escape to the West with Lotte, his sister and her family, have been intensified by the construction of the Wall, a barrier to those who would flee to the west and to a free life. Melchior, with the help of a forged passport and disguise, gets across, leaving Lotte behind because of her refusal to leave with her new baby. Safely on the soil of free Berlin, Melchior's meeting with his engineer friend Matthis (Sebastian Koch) leads to the possibilities of successfully building an escape tunnel under the wall.

Finding an abandoned warehouse in the neighborhood of Checkpoint Charlie, and a cooperative landlady who hands them the keys, they set up in the basement with a couple of able-bodied associates they can trust and start digging. Enter Fritzi (Nicolette Krebitz), an enthusiastic type with plenty of spunk and energy. Having caught wind of the brazen operation, she pleads for a spot on the team in order to rescue her fiance.

In this major subplot, Melchior is, at first, adamently against her on the somewhat contrived basis of mistrust, until she saves his life in a near drowning incident. From then, the slightly built fiance seems no match for our swimming champ in the outcome of the love element. Contrived though it may be, this part of the story, made possible by Harry's only tie being his sister, is nicely (and properly) restrained and pays off big as a more visceral balance against the tedium of digging.

We don't see much dust, since it's the production crew doing the real digging, but we get the idea of the scope, the construction details and general dangers of the project. As we do, the East Germans become aware of planned tunnel escapes, and pursue them diligently. With the relentless inspector (of the Stasi, presumably) Oberst Kruger (Uwe Kockisch) becoming the tiger on Melchior's tail throughout his crew's months of earth removal, he provides the underlying tension to the piece.

Not a man to rage in the Nazi style, but a menace of psychological and physical proportion nevertheless, Kruger demonstrates that the cat and mouse game against his dissatisfied citizens has its rules, and that East German officials, under the constructs of the war victor's agreements, toe the line absolutely. If he's a yard away from an escapee who makes it an inch over the borderline, he stops, helpless. There's no hot pursuit into another territory. There's a weird irony in a heartless contest of life and death with such inviolable barriers.

Other important participants in the plot include Carola (Claudia Michelsen), Matthis's wife who falls under Kruger's thumb whose sacrifice proves redemptive and selfless, 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.

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 a moment of suspense and terror comparable to Hitchcock. Its intensity might not have played so tautly if it weren't for our bonding with the central figures, Melchior and Fritzie, who give us a feeling for the stakes involved.

Even though the story showed up in a Hollywood film, "Escape From East Berlin" in 1962, this version shows that interest can be revived for another generation with a fresh dramatization.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Heino Ferch and Uwe Kockisch
The pursued turns the tables on the pursuer


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