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.
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I’ve seen A Single Man twice and I am pleased to say it lost none of its impact upon a second viewing. The first time I watched it I was shocked at how I connected with it emotionally. It was the sort of heart squeezing link I only usually make with a piece of music or a poem; it was less a film than a piece of art saying something, expressing something, profoundly true about existence.
Of course for many critics the idea that this film was a glorious piece of visual art, a stimulating feast for the eyes, was simultaneously a strength to be applauded and a glaring weakness deflating all worth from the project. I had previously only come across the director and co-writer Tom Ford as the man who designed Daniel Craig’s suits for the Bond reboot Casino Royale. Whilst the tux was suitably suave my lack of expertise in the area meant I withheld judgement on Ford as an artist and a filmmaker until after the film. Those who knew better than me talked knowingly of Ford’s accomplished designing abilities and the inevitable shiny gloss of beautiful high fashion that would be evident in every frame of A Single Man. However critics also questioned the designer turned director’s ability to make his first film something more than a 90 minute perfume ad.
There are moments that feel a little too polished. In particular a flashback sequence in black and white that pictures Colin Firth and his dead lover sunbathing on an impossibly rocky, empty hillside. The Guardian critic picked out this scene as one that felt too crisp, too artificial and more at home in the fashion world than the realm of gay, grieving George’s story. I was inclined to agree but perhaps I was being too harsh. Having seen the whole film twice and loved it both times I am certainly more than happy to overlook an artificial feel to what was after all a dream sequence.
Besides those critics too focused upon the abundance of style in A Single Man may be missing the whole point of the story. Colin Firth’s bereaved, suicidal character comes to see that life is greatly lacking substance; style wins the day. Be it the style he hides behind for his neighbours, colleagues or students, George the lecturer deals mostly in the triumph of style over substance. His substance used to be Jim, his long term lover, but this was taken from him. The film charts a single day in this single man’s life, showing us mostly the tedious motions of his stylish act, with occasional glimpses of substance through the excellent, restrained performance of Colin Firth. That essence of suppressed British emotion so often seen in trashy romantic comedies finally finds its perfect place here in a gay man pondering the meaning of life. The film climaxes with a kind of answer to this question, as through an encounter with a student who reminds him of youth, George comes to treasure the handful of meaningful moments, when all seems clear, that really do make the veneer of stylish everyday nonsense worthwhile.
So first time director Tom Ford must be praised for pulling off such a story. He should not listen to those who criticise the stylishness of his film as it simply irresistibly oozes the essence of an era I absolutely love and as discussed above, the sheer beauty of every frame adds to the meaning of the piece. He also co-wrote the script which seems to be a sensitive adaptation of Isherwood’s original work and is just the right length; this is a man capable of fine tuning the components of storytelling not just the image in front of a camera. Colin Firth’s performance, along with those supporting him, is also completely believable and compelling. Most films with a voiceover inevitably disappoint but this one pulls it off, largely due to Firth. A Single Man is certainly not a gripping, edge of your seat film experience but it is a compelling story beautiful enough to hang on your wall. If you could do so you would, for every time you see it you will ponder the nature of the human condition profoundly and re-examine your life.
To Sherlock then, a new version of the classic Holmes and Watson partnership, that updates the sleuthing to a modern day London setting. This time-leap transformation has not really been explored by filmmakers, perhaps out of respect for the characters’ grounding in Victoriana, or perhaps because it couldn’t be done well.
But if anyone can do it surely Steven Moffat, head writer of Doctor Who previously discussed on this blog, could! In partnership with fellow Whovian script writer Mark Gattis, Moffat has set out to introduce Holmes and Watson to a new generation via a new crime fighting era. The idea for the series came about during journeys to Doctor Who’s Cardiff HQ. In the title role Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor I have long thought would make an excellent Doctor at some point, plays the brilliant, socially inept mastermind of detection. The music for the series is composed by David Arnold of Bond film fame. All these things meant I couldn’t not like this programme!
I did of course love the first episode, A Study in Pink, perhaps all the more for being able to note Moffat’s little tweaks from Conan Doyle’s original story that united Holmes and Watson for the first time, A Study in Scarlet. However as with A Single Man the style was sometimes more impressive than the substance. A Guardian review has already noted that the plot was thin for this first episode, despite some wonderful Moffat-esque twists such as Mycroft appearing to be Moriarty and most importantly of all the spot on characterisation. Martin Freeman’s Watson is just the right balance between war veteran and ordinary man, avoiding the bumbling screen Watsons of past adaptations. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is marvellously distant, methodical and brilliant. The Sherlock influences on Dr Who were apparent whilst watching this and vice versa. I do hope Benedict gets a shot at being a Timelord. For now though I shall enjoy his interpretation of another one of my favourite characters and hope that this promising opener was but a taster of better things to come.
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