Saturday Matinee: Berlin Tunnel 21

Berlin Tunnel 21Sometimes we buy a DVD in hopes that an unheard-of movie will be a surprise hit. And sometimes we write a view to warn you guys not to do that.

This is one of those times.

Berlin Tunnel 21 seems like a good idea: make a movie about the true story of a tunnel escape in the early days of the Berlin Wall. (In fact, the same story was already made into a TV movie, The Tunnel, when it was fresh in 1962, and spawned at least two books). The Berlin Wall, dividing a city, suburbs, and families, was the absolute moral model of the free West vs. Communist slavery, and this story seemed to have everything: an American in love with a German girl trapped in the East, an embittered German engineer, a man whose previous escape attempt left his fiancée, he thought, dead, but actually in an East German political prison.

It’s the execution where CBS, who made the film as a 20th-anniversary-of-the-wall TV quickie, fell down.

Berlin Tunnel 21 3Richard Thomas, at that time well-known to TV audiences for his long-running performance as John-boy Walton, was somewhat miscast as am Army lieutenant in love with a German girl. He’s in his thirties, and looks like the oldest LT in the Army, even given the boyish cast of his features. It doesn’t help that the producers have him, and everyone else, wearing long 70s-style hairdos. Other names in the cast include Horst Buchholz, better cast as the German engineer Emerich Weber, and José Ferrer, whose talents are squandered in a bit part.

The idea itself is rather dramatic — the plan is to tunnel from a free area to a denied area, to extract people from the denied area, and to get away with it; and this is all taking place against a backdrop of international tension and such rampant Communist hostility that they routinely shot attempted border crossers dead. (Soon after the events shown here, they would emplace land mines and mechanical ambushes that would remain for many years). As successful escapes took place, the East Germans and their Soviet puppetmasters closed off more and more possible avenues of escape.

So the scriptwriter probably didn’t need to add some of the events which did not actually happen to the script — but he did, anyway. Some of these subplots are only irritating.

The movie is not without its moments. Near the beginning, a couple makes a run for it in a scroungy East German car, only to be undone by the guards’ gunfire.

Berlin Tunnel 21 2Which brings us to… the guns. Eh. While the overall gestalt of 1962 Berlin is well-reproduced by the moviemakers — it was filmed in (West, obviously) Berlin with a largely German cast — the East German soldiers and VoPos are very shakily rendered. They have a mixed bag of PPsHs (and even at least one PPD, watch for it) and rifles which look remarkably non-Soviet. They are, in fact, FN Model 1949 semiauto rifles, an underappreciated Garand equivalent best known today as a way station enroute to the world-class FN-FAL.

Of course, in 1981/82 it probably would have been hard to find a movie armorer that could provide the right weapons, AKs. This weapons dichotomy between the real East Germans’ AKs and the extras FNs/PPShes really becomes clear when the director integrates some contemporary newsreels. It’s pretty clear that the guys in the black-and-white footage are armed differently that the guys in color, who are supposed to be the same guys.

The usually comprehensive IMFDB doesn’t have an entry for this film. Probably right; they’re not trying to be the Internet Movie WRONG Firearms Data Base, after all.

Oddly enough, the film has a good audience rating from IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, so maybe we’re being a bit too hard on it. Still, there are better escape-from-Communism stories. (We used to hear a different one every day from exiles like the DLI instructors, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty staff, and other exiles we in SF were fortunate enough to work with on this and that).

Some three million East Germans — almost a fifth of the population — would escape before the final collapse of the slave state. Other Communist states suffered from a similar hemorrhage of the most ambitious and imaginative people. This link at Al-Jazeers (of all places!) enumerates some of the most spectacular East German escapes.