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Der Tunnel (The Tunnel)

(2005) ** 1/2 Unrated
150 min. Home Vision Entertainment. Director: Roland Suso Richter. Cast: Heino Ferch, Nicolette Krebitz, Nicoleete Krebitz, Sebastian Koch, Alexandra Maria Lara.

At two hours and forty minutes, The Tunnel is exactly the sort of story that more commonly appears as a TV "event" than a feature film, and indeed this drama of circumventing the Berlin Wall, circa 1961, began life as a German miniseries. Even though relatively little time is spent in the tunnel making its way beneath the German borderline, your brain will soon be screaming "Somebody turn on a light!" since director Roland Suso Richter insistently shoots everything in the same dim glaze. But that's the point: to trap the audience in a tale of tense inevitability.

Screenwriter Johannes W. Betz loosely bases the story on the specific real-life escape of East German swimming star Hasso Herschel, renamed Harry Melchior and played by Heino Ferch. With Richter, Betz manufactures some interesting diversions and nailbiting sequences noting the threats of cave-ins and betrayals that could lead to discovery, capture, and execution in the days leading up to the break. Betz also includes the interesting fact that an American television camera crew (from NBC) negotiated a fee to record the escapees' proceedings.

Eventually, the cat-and-mouse game between the men and woman desperate to reunite broken families and the dogged, Machiavellian East German police will have to end in a mad scrabble to freedom. Ferch (Downfall) anchors a solid ensemble that quietly emotes the pain and frustration of the time. Though 30 minutes shorter than the TV version, The Tunnel is overlong and a bit overcooked (the scoring is particularly awful), but it's also properly grueling.

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