The Tunnel
starring a whole lotta Germans

4 stars

The Tunnel is a great escape. Not The Great Escape, the classic 1963 film about a group of captured Allied soldiers digging their way out of a German prison camp, but as far as tunneling-to-freedom films go, The Tunnel digs deep.

The Tunnel, like The Great Escape, is about escaping from Germany; the difference is that The Tunnel is also about escaping *to* Germany. That is, our heroes are Germans trying to get from East Berlin to West in the months after the Berlin Wall went up in 1961. There's none of the hup-ho pip-pip us-vs.-the-Jerries business here; we're all German and just trying to deal with this awful stupid wall that's been thrown between us.

As a result, the Tunnel is about presssure. It's not just physical sense of oppression, the weight of crouching and cramping and digging in a narrow cave that could collapse at any minute, though that's there. No, The Tunnel focuses more on the emotional pressure, the fact that everybody working on the tunnel is connected to someone on the other side, someone still in the grip of the Communists, someone who's vulnerable. It's about trust, love and commitment and how screwed up all that stuff can get when assholes put a big stone wall with soldiers guarding it between people.

Our hero is Harry Melchior, champion swimmer from East Berlin even though Harry, as played by Henio French, doesn't really come off as a slender swimmer type. He's a broad, beefy guy, a fusion of, say, Bruce Willis and Peter Stormarre (the guy who fed Steve Buscemi into the wood chipper in Fargo). Harry manages to sneak past the newly constructed checkpoint with forged documents, but he's forced to leave his beloved sister Lotte behind. Harry hooks up with an engineering buddy, Matthis Hiller, who'd managed to escape some weeks before but whose pregnant wife Claudia was captured in the attempt. With rugged German efficiency, Harry and Matthis set to work building a tunnel to get Lotte and Claudia and as many other people as they can out.

But tunnel-digging takes time, months, leaving all manners of opportunity for the relationships that bind the diggers and their loved ones to attenuate and dim, for betrayals to be coerced and hopes to be shot dead. There's also time for Harry to develop a relationship with Fritzi, another digger who hopes to save her boyfriend Heiner, and some rather terrible and true things come out of that as well.

As in The Pianist, there's a sense of frank reality to The Tunnel, with no easy good-evil characterizations. Our heroes are compromised, and there's humanity in the Communist German soldiers --one particular haunting moment shows a soldier flinching with regret as he shoots a man making a break for the Wall. And, like real life, there are surprises, as when, after working for months on the tunnel, the diggers watch as a bus roars down the street, smashes through the wall and disgorges a dozen people more-or-less safely on the other side. All the diggers can do is shrug: "Some people do it their way; we do it our way."

The Tunnel isn't exactly a fun summer movie; in fact it's pretty much the opposite. But it is about freedom, real freedom, hard-earned, partially-achieved, and it's worth digging for.