starring Heino Ferch, Nicolette Krebitz, Sebastian Koch, Alexandra Maria Lara
screenplay by Johannes W. Betz
directed by Roland Suso Richter
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover The Tunnel is a handsomely-mounted TV movie with a sideline in uplift. There's nothing particularly wrong with it on a professional level, but its subject matter--a group of people who tunnelled under the Berlin Wall to save friends and family--has been drained of its ideological thrust: It's so sure that we know the horrors of life in East Berlin that it never really goes into details, and in the process, it blunts its effectiveness as a piece of drama. The film may be nicely shot and well-acted, but it makes so many assumptions about what we think and how we should feel that it neither teaches us anything we didn't already know nor makes us feel the urgency of that which we already do.
Set in 1961, The Tunnel centres on Harry Melchior, East German swimming champion and defector to West Berlin; he's left behind his sister and her daughter, the latter of whom is too young to undertake the dangerous business of sneaking to the other side of the city. But then, in response to the flood of border-jumpers from the Eastern side, work commences on the Berlin Wall, making escape far more difficult and casting doubt on whether Harry's loved ones will ever get out. So he and a small band of defectors do the only thing they can: they find an unused factory on the Western side and tunnel under The Wall.
You'd think that this is would be the occasion for a little intrigue. In a narrative sense, it certainly is: The initial diggers add new ones to their ranks, messages go back and forth over Checkpoint Charlie, family members are strong-armed by Stasi thugs, and, in a bizarre turn, American television underwrites the whole enterprise in exchange for exclusive footage. But even as the story keeps shifting gears to accommodate the stories of the tunnel and its architects, the film itself never quite grasps their significance. Satisfied to have a ready-made series of events to string together into a movie, it never fills in the background on life in East Germany or really builds any of the characters into something other than cheerleaders for an ill-defined "freedom" in the West.
Perhaps nobody needs a lecture on the grim reality of East German life, but any film that deals with it had better illustrate its trials with a certain amount of gravity. Here, director Roland Suso Richter is often astonishing in his soft-pedalling of suffering on either side of the Wall: His lighting is soft and friendly, his costumes (outside of tunnel-digging) are immaculate and unwrinkled, and his actresses are perfectly made-up in every scene. Furthermore, we never see any evidence of suffering in East Germany--aside from one breadline and a house-moving screw-up, life in the Worker's Paradise seems about as threatening as a weekend at EuroDisney. As such, it's impossible to justify the incredible efforts of either the diggers or the central-casting secret police who are constantly twisting arms to stop them, because the director hasn't bothered to differentiate between their contrasting views of the world.
It's an interesting comment on the times that The Tunnel is so lacking in outrage or ideological fire-breathing. Back in the Eighties, this would have been a bone-crusher: the tunnellers would spike the ball for Western freedom and do the chicken dance all the way back to Washington. Now, it's just one more historical event to be plundered for story value and presented as uplifting entertainment. But perhaps it should have been a bone-crusher anyway, just for the sake of doing justice to the people who put their lives on the line; even if the film entertains (however feebly), it's not fitting to have their story turned into tepid fare designed for recycling on cable television. Originally published: February 7, 2003.