Film fans love a good tunnel. Whether it be the ingenious method for a daring bank robbery or the claustrophobic road to freedom from a tightly fenced POW camp, they are a vital ingredient of many a cinematic classic. Tunnels are a striking but simple storytelling device, that place the focus of the narrative firmly on the characters of people getting from one place to another, usually against the odds and at a snail’s pace. And what are all stories but snappier versions of the long and slow journey of life?
Sitting just a hay-fever induced sneeze away from surprisingly sizzling Easter sunshine with the windows flung open to the fresh spring air, I doubted my ability to fully inhabit the journey of the characters in Der Tunnel, a German film finally released on DVD on the 25th of April. In the comfort and luxuries of a 21st century room, blessed with the freedom to liberally gulp countryside air, I felt a million miles away from the damp, stuffy, volatile tubes carved torturously through the soil by countless characters in tunnel based films of the past. Not to mention feeling a world away from the 1960s Berlin setting of Der Tunnel.
Berlin is a constant inspiration for superb historical drama. It’s a fascinating city and just a glance at the ingredients that comprise its vibrant whole tells you why it’s so popular for storytellers. It’s steeped in history of all kinds, even before the rollercoaster the 20th century put the place through. It became a radical melting pot for cultural and political change, ravaged by wars and economic turbulence and enriched by the presence of artists, writers, intellectuals and dancers.
Then with the division of the city via its infamous wall, the eyes of the world came to rest on a stark clash of cultures. When JFK declared himself a spiritual resident of the city he confirmed its status as a symbol of the Cold War, the tense conflict in microcosm. The West stood for freedom and the East for brainwashed or enforced conformity. Whilst Der Tunnel is ultimately pro the West and anti the Eastern regime, it does make you consider such simplifications more carefully. Standards of living do not change magically because of a move, and state intrusion can be replaced by the media. The West is no sure-fire ticket to happiness.
Of all the tales inspired by the city though it’s perhaps those of suspicious spies and elusive espionage that endure with the widest and most thrilling legacy. Set a film in Berlin and it’s almost guaranteed shorthand for the audience that secrets will lurk and loom at the centre of the plot. Der Tunnel is no exception to this rule. There are a number of features that could be ripped straight from a Cold War thriller, with a manipulative East German Colonel using relationships and blackmail to protect the regime a superb example.
And yet this isn’t a tale of meddling foreigners but a story based on the truth of real Berliners, trying to escape meddling and ideological interference in their private lives. It’s principally the tale of champion swimmer Harry Melchior, who gives up a comfortable and celebrated lifestyle in the East to flee to the West before the wall is completed. He’s unable to get his beloved sister out in time though and he sets about finding a way to “bring her across”, and is joined by others cruelly parted from family, friends and lovers.
It’s a dramatic scene between two separated lovers, one of them also Melchior’s love interest, that really stood out for me from Der Tunnel. One of many emotional moments in the film, this rises above the rest because of superb acting and high drama but also due to the visual presence of the wall: painfully, physically and unavoidably denying the lovers a precious moment together. The tender scenes after this event are also moving, and the standout scene itself certainly has the potential to pluck tears from the coldest of eyes.
At just twenty minutes short of three hours long, I was worried about the wearisome effects of Der Tunnel. Would I need to scramble to the surface for air? In many ways this isn’t very creative or original storytelling, but it’s undeniably well executed, from the acting to the direction. I was engrossed by the lives and loves of the characters throughout. Crucially the tense and exciting climax delivers a classic, satisfying conclusion that’s fitting for such a classic premise.