Based on the true story of the biggest underground escape attempt from East to West Berlin, “The Tunnel” is a cracking slice of old-fashioned, widescreen entertainment that deserves play beyond offshore TV. Conceived and shot like a feature film but actually financed and first shown as a telepic, the original three-hour version aired over two nights in January on SAT 1 and is already available in Germany on homevid. Current 160-minute theatrical cut, cleverly done, omits no scenes of major importance and more than stands up as a fully-fledged feature on the bigscreen.
Story limns the exploits of the real-life Hasso Herschel, here called Harry Melchior (Heino Ferch), an East German swimming champ who refuses to let his popularity be exploited by the government. After the Wall goes up in August ’61, Harry escapes on a forged passport, joining previous escapee friend Matthis (Sebastian Koch) and the latter’s two pals, Fred (Felix Eitner) and Italian-American Vic (Mehmet Kurtulus).
Desperate to bring over his sister, Lotte (Alexandra Maria Lara), Harry conceives the idea of clandestinely digging a huge tunnel, approximately 7 yards deep and 145 yards long, under the Wall, with the help of his three friends. The enormous enterprise, on which they’re joined by the spunky Fritzi (Nicolette Krebitz), ends up taking a year and mushrooms into a mass exodus worthy of “The Great Escape.”
Helmer Roland Suso Richter, again working with d.p. Martin Langer, shows a natural eye for well-honed widescreen drama, here given a grittier edge by color processing that’s hard and cold. Period detail is natural and lived-in, with a real feel for ’60s Berlin and the realities of having a wall dicing a city in half.
However, what ultimately gives “The Tunnel” the feel of a real movie rather than a telepic is Johannes W. Betz’s well-crafted script, which balances believable character development alongside narrative drive. Betz manipulates a large number of story strands and personalities with deftness and no sense of haste (even in the trimmed version), and the physical set pieces — various tunneling disasters, the over-the-wall escape of Fritzi’s East German boyfriend, and the final tense reels — never lose sight of character between the thrills. As a result, the final emotional payoff is considerable.
Thesps fully inhabit their roles, with Ferch physically commanding as Harry, Koch quiet but focused as engineer Matthis, and Uwe Kockisch bringing a malevolent charm to the part of East Berlin secret police chief Krueger. Other perfs are excellent down the line.