- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

“The Tunnel,” exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, isn’t exactly fresh off the import vine. A 2001 German production, it must have been intended as a 40th anniversary tribute to the daring tunnelers from East Germany who had defied the emigration restrictions of the communist regime. Construction of the infamous Berlin Wall, intended to discourage flight from the city itself, began in August 1961.

“The Tunnel” is overextended at 2 hours and leaves a multitude of subplots at loose ends. A conspicuous and often dubious amount of fictional tampering appears to have gone into director Roland Suso Richter’s account of a group that conspires on the first ambitious and dramatically successful tunneling operation of the period. This was the group that attracted NBC News, which bankrolled their efforts to some extent and publicized their success on a “White Paper” special in 1961.

By and large, “The Tunnel” depends on a superhero named Harry Melchior, a former swimming champion from East Germany whose resentment of the regime has given him strong incentive for retaliation once he escapes to West Berlin. Portrayed by Heino Ferch (Albert Speer in “Downfall”), Harry looks as strong as a team of horses and seems determined to dig the tunnel single-handed. It measures about 23 feet in depth and nearly 500 feet in length.

Harry is part of a four-man conspiracy that includes a close friend, Matthis Hiller (Sebastian Koch), whose engineering skills are essential to secure and accurate progress. Even when other devoted diggers are recruited, you get the impression that the filmmakers may be low-balling their number out of deference to Harry, who wields pick and shovel like a man possessed.

Harry has vowed to liberate a beloved sister, Lotte, and her daughter Ina, a goal that presents some complications for Lotte’s mild-mannered spouse, Theo. Matthis has left a pregnant wife, Carola, in the Eastern zone. Both women are being closely watched by a police official called Kruger (Uwe Kockisch), who emerges as the tenacious Javert to Harry’s indomitable Jean Valjean.

The subplots boil over when the Melchior apparatus gets a sexy recruit called Fritzi (Nicolette Krebitz), who falls for Harry despite an understanding with a beau who is part of the construction gang on the Berlin Wall. An excruciating sequence depicts this poor boyfriend, Heiner (Florian Panzner), making a foolhardy dash for freedom across the wall. Fritzi and Harry are helpless bystanders on the other side. Nevertheless, the calamity promptly liberates Fritzi and Harry as a torrid love match. Mr. Richter boldly jumps from death scene to the kitchen table, where hero and heroine can’t restrain their erotic hunger one scene longer.

This tendency to go for the bombastic and/or tasteless jugular is the most interesting aspect of Mr. Richter’s technique. He may be overdue for a Hollywood invitation. From the look of things, he could give Michael Bay a run for his money as a shameless manipulator.

* 1/2

TITLE: “The Tunnel”

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter, with occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor, including an interlude of simulated intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Roland Suso Richter. Screenplay by Johannes W. Betz. Cinematography by Martin Langer. In German with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 157 minutes

WEB SITE: www.homevision.

com/thetunnel/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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