Der Tunnel was created as a two-part television movie in Germany with a runtime of more than three hours. It has been repackaged with English subtitles for the American theatrical market and slightly cut down to two hours 47 minutes. That seems like a long time to be cooped up with a foreign language film, reading subtitles. But the time flies by and after a short time you hardly notice that you are watching a foreign film at all. You are simply caught up in the action of a well-crafted suspenseful drama based on a true story.
For those readers who immediately pooh-pooh the idea of watching a made-for-television movie, I urge you to keep reading. The production quality on this film is excellent and fully up to the standards of any major Western theatrical production. I was amazed when I read afterwards that it had been created for television broadcast.
The action takes place in 1961 and 1962, starting with the shocking overnight construction of the Berlin Wall (which of course was not a wall overnight — it consisted of barbed wire and nervous soldiers watching nervous citizens). A champion East German swimmer, Harry Melchior, is known as a "troublemaker" by the East German police and party leaders. He has spent some time in prison in the past (for taking part in the June Rebellion of 1953) and they want to keep him on a very tight leash, representing the state in his athletic endeavors. He decides to make a break for West Germany, but is unable to take along his devoted and very close sister, Lotte, and her family.
Once in the west, Harry sets about figuring out how to make good on his vow to get Lotte out. He and some cohorts finally decide to tunnel under the wall and sneak their loved ones under the border.
The rest of the film chronicles the construction of the tunnel, a gradually building love interest for Harry, and the unrelenting attention of the Director For Illegal Emigration — a state functionary who is fixated on making sure that Harry's loved ones don't foil him with another escape attempt.
In many ways, the movie is reminiscent of The Great Escape. The suspense builds with the seemingly impossible construction of a long tunnel to escape, the possibility of detection by the guards, the elaborate planning for getting out a group of escapees, and a big showdown situation.
The movie takes time to focus on the human aspects of the story. The relationship between Harry and his sister is clearly communicated with a minimum of exposition. The men who work together on the tunnel each have their own stories and people in East Germany that they want to help. The one female member of the group (Fritzi) has her own complicated story (hers seems the most sensationalistic and improbable, briefly sidetracking the movie from drama to melodrama).
Star Heino Herch as Harry presents a strong-minded, strong-willed character. I wanted just a bit more depth and conflict in his portrayal. He seems so perfect and so unidimensional in his convictions that he eventually became uninteresting. Herch was 38 years old when the film was made, and he looks it. I had a hard time accepting him as a champion swimmer going up against athletes in their 20s. I have not been able to find any factual biography of the person to see how old he really was during these events. Harry's love interest is portrayed by 30-year-old Nicolette Krebitz, who has the good fortune of looking about ten years younger than her age. Unfortunately the disparity in the two stars' chronological appearances distracted me a bit. At times they seemed a bit creepy together, looking like an older man with a young impressionable girl.
The other male members of the tunnel team are more complex and interesting to watch. Sebastian Koch as Matthis and Mehmet Kurtulus as Vic breathe life and emotional conflict into their characters. Kurtulus does a great job of sounding like an American speaking German, instead of the native-born German he is.
I also enjoyed the performance of Uwe Kockisch as the East German functionary trying to thwart Harry's schemes. He could have played the man as a cartoon "bad guy," but instead gave him a quiet dignity. This was a man performing the functions of his job in a cold and professional manner.
The action and suspense builds very well throughout the movie. The story is told linearly, without tricks, flasbacks, or voice-over narration (except for a couple of lines at the very beginning to establish that these are real events). The movie ends with a satisfying epilog to let viewers know what happened to the various individuals in later years.
Tunnel scenes are appropriately claustrophobic and realistic, as the production team built a long self-contained dirt tunnel inside a movie soundstage and packed in cameramen, sound guys, and actors.
Recreations of 1961 East Germany feel accurate and realistic, with the buildings, cars, soldiers, and costumes creating a sense of time and place. The company filmed in Germany and in Prague to recreate real locations.
English subtitling is clear and there are no funny mistranslations. Parents will find no nudity, drug use, or gratuitous violence. People do get shot and die however, there are swear words, and there is one mostly-clothed sex scene.
The DVD contains a "Making Of" featurette that goes into detail on the shooting techniques in the constructed tunnel, with commentary by the actors and director. Hasso Herschel also contributes some views about the actual construction of the tunnel. Herschel is the real swimming champion who made the initial escape and built the tunnel. The reason for renaming his character in the film is never given, but does support the theory that a viewer should always retain a bit of skepticism over any entertainment drama that is "based on" a true story.
The only other feature is a trailer. The soundtrack is selectable for two-channel stereo or 5.1 surround. Music and sound effects are subtle and do their job of underscoring the action without calling attention to themselves.