The Tunnel – starring Heino Ferch, Sebastian Koch, Alexandra Maria Lara, Nicolette Krebitz, Claudia Michelsen. Directed by Roland Suso RichterIts American release perversely delayed for four years, “The Tunnel” recalls “Das Boot” in its intensity, scope (although much of it takes place within a closely confined space), and its meticulous evocation of period and place, in attitudes and emotions as well as appearance.
Based on an amazing true story that occurred just after the Berlin Wall went up, it stars Heino Ferch, a commanding presence as a champion swimmer who, with his engineer friend (Sebastian Koch), masterminds an attempt to dig a tunnel under the wall through which about two dozen people hope to escape, including the swimmer’s sister (Alexandra Maria Lara), her husband (Mehmet Kurtulus) and their small daughter (Sarah Kubel).
The day before the wall went up on Aug. 13, 1961, Ferch’s Harry Melchior — in real life, Hasso Herschel — won the German Freestyle Championship. It was a great moment for East Germany but also an opportunity for the swimmer, who had been imprisoned for four years for his participation in the June Rebellion of 1953, to snub government officials at his victory ceremony. Koch’s Matthis and his wife attempt to flee to the West through a sewer, but only Matthis escapes. Immediately placed under surveillance, Melchior is determined to leave as soon as possible, and armed with false papers and ironclad confidence, the rugged athlete easily passes through Checkpoint Charlie and into West Berlin on Aug. 26, 1961.
He joins forces with Matthis and others to start planning to dig under the wall a tunnel that will be approximately 7 yards high and 145 yards long, a daunting yearlong undertaking. Typical of the film’s attention to detail from the start, and contributing to its carefully created aura of period authenticity, Harry knows that the day he crosses over from East to West “The Misfits” is playing at the Zoopalast, then as now, one of Berlin’s major movie theaters.
Richter and writer Johannes W. Betz miss no opportunity to generate and sustain suspense. Will the tunnel collapse or flood? Hit an unexpected obstacle or meet some other unanticipated delay? Come out at the wrong site in East Berlin?
The possibilities for catastrophic miscalculation are as infinite as those for betrayal because so many people on both sides must be trusted if so ambitious and risky an operation is to have a prayer of succeeding. Amid all the tension and paranoia Richter stirs up, he presents a raft of sharply drawn individuals that allows full expressionof the tragic absurdity of the wall, which divided Germany and encircled West Berlin for 28 years.
Artfully culled from a two-part, three-hour TV movie, “The Tunnel” has such strong performances and production values that in a version 20 minutes shorter it emerges as a fully theatrical film. For all the somberness of its circumstances, “The Tunnel” is terrifically stirring, even inviting audiences to cheer the heroes and hiss the villains. It is the kind of superbly crafted, intelligent entertainment — a classic suspense thriller — that nowadays is as welcome as it is rare.
An Avatar Films presentation of a teamWorxÖ production for Sat-1 in association with Beta Cinema. Director Roland Suso Richter. Producers Nico Hofmann, Ariane Krampe. Screenplay Johannes W. Betz. Cinematographer Martin Langer. Editor Eva Schnare. Music Harald Kloser, Thomas Wanker. Production designer Michael Pfalzer. Art director Bettina Schmidt. In German with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 37 minutes. At Laemmle’s Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 655-4010.