It was in 1961, just as the Berlin Wall was going up, that Melchior (Heino Ferch) made his escape to West Berlin, albeit without his beloved sister and her family. Once safely on the other side and reunited with his best friend, engineering whiz Matthis (Sebastian Koch), he sets to planning the tunnel that will bring both his sister and Matthis' wife to freedom. It is, of course, a daunting undertaking that grows more and more challenging with each passing day, obliging them to eventually expand their small group of confidants into a virtual day-and-night construction crew, each of whom also has loved ones to bring over.
It's mind-boggling to imagine that this was, like so many exceptional German films, conceived as a television movie -- in all respects it is superior to anything Hollywood has put into theaters this year. Working from Johannes W. Betz' nuanced, airtight screenplay, director Richter pulls the strings like a master puppeteer, progressively amping up the thrills and the suspense without ever losing sight of the profound human and political implications that make the tunnel a very real matter of life and death.
Prior to this film, there was only Robert Siodmak's 1962 "Escape From East Berlin," which was rushed into production to capitalize on the then timely matter of the wall and the first such tunneled escape which had taken place only months before the movie was put into production. More than 40 years later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall now part of history, there's more resonance to such stories. Some will undoubtedly try to fault "The Tunnel" for wanting to have it both ways -- a commercial suspense film wrapped around real figures and their heroic quest for freedom during one of the Cold War's most contentious chapters. But therein lies the film's magic -- that it's able to work so well as both serious and commercial cinema stands as a counterpoint to the prevailing view in Hollywood that such extremes cannot be reconciled. Indeed, Hollywood once knew how to manage such feats with regularity -- it was the bread and butter of the studio system. And, perhaps, it will be again. In the meantime, it's up to bravura filmmakers like Richter to guard the flame. Starring Heino Ferch, Nicolette Krebitz, Sebastian Koch, Mehmet Kurtulus, Alexandra Maria Lara and Felix Eitner. Directed by Roland Suso Richter. Written by Johannes W. Betz. Produced by Nico Hofmann and Ariane Krampe. An Avatar release. Thriller. German-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 157 min.