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
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
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.
~~ Jules Brenner