Like last week's "The Great Raid," this week's "The Tunnel" is about a raid on a prisoner-of-war camp. The difference is that in that movie the prison camp was called Cabanatuan, and in this week's it's called East Germany.
The biography of a long, dangerous hole in the ground, it's a remarkably successful recounting of a great escape. The film is superb, but it also strikes me as part of a mini-boomlet that should be saluted. With "Raid" and the spring release "Downfall," it's one of three films this year that actively celebrate history and find their narratives not in a screenwriter's bantery, explosive, improbable fantasy life, but in that much harder, messier, more tragic place: the world.
Set in 1962, "The Tunnel" is the story of a batch of tough-minded Germans who, in the immediate aftermath of the building of the Berlin Wall, decide to dig that hole, go through it, pick up as many loved ones as possible, and go back through it to West Berlin. Yet it's not a political screed that resorts to crude commie bashing; refreshingly, like many of the great political historical films of the past ("The Battle of Algiers" for one), it finds heroes and humanity on both sides of the line. And although it's as exciting as the best thriller and a lot more exciting than the usual thriller, it never grandstands or takes cheap shots, even as it tells the true story of the most successful flight from the East.
It begins with Harry Melchior (Heino Ferch), an East German swimming champion, a thinly fictionalized version of a man named Hass Herschel. Perhaps it's his jock's ego, perhaps it's his hard-headedness, perhaps it's his love of struggle, any struggle, but Harry has a deep, instinctive aversion to the GDR regime, even when it tries to bribe him with promises of a much better life than the one his relatives and colleagues without his hundred-meter freestyle splits will have. In the first week after the blocks are mortared into place in 1961 he a) insults an important official and b) bluffs his way through Checkpoint Charlie and finds a new life.
It haunts him that his sister Lotte (Alexandra Maria Lara), who alone supported him when the regime had imprisoned him, has to remain behind, because she is married and has a daughter. He resolves to get her out. But he is just one of a like-minded number of individuals who somehow find one another, come (reluctantly) to trust each other and then start digging.
Here's one thing the movie gets. There's a lot of dirt in planet Earth. And there's no more dirt anywhere than at the bottom of the hole you're digging. And when the hole has to go seven yards downward, 148 yards eastward and then seven yards upward, you are talking about a task roughly the size of Hercules' labor in the Augean stables. No wonder it takes a year. The director, Roland Suso Richter, has a superb feel for the ordeal of digging, the strain, the filth, the sweat, the endless pain of it. Of the volunteer laborers, Harry the strong is, of course, the champ, with his broad back and rippling muscles and obsessive commitment to the impossible. But the others -- Fritzi (Nicolette Krebitz), a young woman, the aristocratic Fred (Felix Eitner), even the studious master-planner Matthis (Sebastian Koch) -- move their share of earth.
Other than the dirt, other obstacles fight them: the budget, for one, though that crisis is solved when they meet up with, of all entities, a three-lettered American outfit interested in mischief. CIA? Nope, NBC. The network finances the latter stages of the project in exchange for exclusive rights to the story. Amazing that security wasn't breached, but the records say it wasn't.
But most frightening of all are the East Germans. They know something is up and try to penetrate the conspiracy by a number of means, led by the surprisingly decent Oberst Kruger (Uwe Kockisch), who takes these escape attempts as tragedies, not as desertions. He employs the usual police stratagems, finding witnesses and using leverage to flip them, trying to pin down the elusive truth, which is so close (literally under his nose). For their parts, the tunnelers understand the degree to which they're being stalked and respond with a kind of counter-gambit warfare, full of feints and red herrings and chaff, using classic espionage tradecraft to mislead and confuse. It's like John le Carre consulted with them on their plans, though at the time he was a junior diplomat in Bonn and as yet unpublished.
Even with all the brilliant huggermugger, it's a close-run thing and "The Tunnel" achieves incredible suspense as it maneuvers the two teams against each other through a museum of Cold War icons -- the Vorpos with their pre-"Star Wars" helmets, the frosty cobblestones, the severe beauty of the Brandenburg gate, the cruel scrolls of barbed wire, the bitter wall itself, cheesy and jerrybuilt and so ugly, and that spy novelist's favorite, the checkpoint called Charlie where East and West faced each other nervously across a 30-yard gantlet of aggression and suspicion and machine guns.
Richter also has one stunning sequence. In a sense this story is an epic of the wall, and it looks briefly at other famous runs to daylight, the famous shot of the errant Vorpo delicately leaping over the barbed wire as he sprinted to freedom, the bus that crashed through in broad daylight. But the most powerful is a young man trying to flee those few tortured feet to his lover's waiting arms, only to be shot down. Without overdoing it, Richter captures the tragedy of that day, the dying boy bleeding out on one side of the stacked cinderblocks, his weeping lover just inches away but unable to do a thing about it, for the building material that separated them was, in 1962, virtually impregnable.
Anyhow, either as history at its most inspiring or moviemaking at its most exciting, "The Tunnel" is a trip.
The Tunnel (167 minutes, in German with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street) is rated PG-13 for sexual depictions and political violence.