the tunnel (2002)


director: roland suso richter

heino ferch, nicolette krebitz, sebastian koch, alexandra maria lara

Roland Suso Richterís The Tunnel is based on the true story of an escapee from East Berlin who dug a tunnel under the Wall to help his sister and more than two dozen other East Berliners escape to the west. Itís a tight, conventional, mostly satisfying film whose strange resonance comes from the way that it intersects with another, mostly forgotten film about a tunnel dug under the wall.

Harry Melchior was an East German swimming champion who, once he manages to sneak through the checkpoints to his freedom, devoted nine months to digging a tunnel from an abandoned factory to the basement of a cafť across the border. As played by Heino Ferch, heís a model of the sort of austere macho that was once the trademark of actors like Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Indeed, itís easy to imagine Richterís film being made forty years ago, in Cold War Berlin, and thatís because it was. At one point, while Harryís friends are driving around the streets near the Wall, they come across a film crew making a Hollywood film about an escape tunnel. That film - Robert Siodmakís Escape From East Berlin - became a gift for Harry and his friends, as they get funding from American television in exchange for the rights to their story.

Thereís not a lot of stylistic difference between The Tunnel and Siodmakís film; Richter has made the sort of movie you would expect to see during the Cold War, with tough, conflicted heroes, slim pretty girls, a seething commie villain, close calls, gunfire, and a climactic chase through the underground passage. Ferch, shirtless and sweaty for much of the film, even gets a sexy dance sequence with Fritzi (Nicolette Krebitz), a young girl whose dream of helping her boyfriend escape to the West is tested by her attraction to hunky Harry.

While the real Harry Melchiorís tunnel owed a debt to American television, Richterís film owes much to the precision, machine-like style of classic American moviemaking. With that in mind, it casts profound doubts about the real historical truth of the film, but it hardly makes for a wasted evening at the movies.