Year Released: 1981
Directed by: Richard Michaels
Starring: Richard Thomas, Horst Buchholz, Jose Ferrer, Ute, Christensen
(Not Rated, 141 min.)
Genre: Adventures and Action, Mystery and Suspense
“Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” –John F. Kennedy, in his speech at Berlin (June 26, 1963)
This 1981 thriller has a simmering tension that keeps you on tenterhooks for over 2 hours. And all that without squealing car chases or flying bullets and bodies. Instead it’s dread of a midnight knock at the door, panic over a lurking shadow under the lamppost, and cold sweats while an East German officer reviews your papers.
Tunnel 21 captures the insidious terror that followed the building of the Berlin Wall in August, 1961. Families are torn apart, lovers separated, ambitions crushed. But five men decide to fight it.
In Berlin in 1961, an American soldier and a German engineer join forces to build a tunnel under the Berlin Wall in order to smuggle out refugees, including the soldier's East German girlfriend.
One of the things that makes this film rare is the negative picture of communism, an ideology responsible for over 100 million deaths since it burst onto the scene in Russia just over 100 years ago. But while Hollywood and the world churn out high quality films depicting the Holocaust, which took some 6 million lives, they rarely focus on communism’s much higher death toll. Probably because those deaths were more insidious in nature (programmed starvation in the Soviet Union, for example) and largely not observed by Westerners. And they were not nearly as melodramatic as the concentration camp deaths the victorious Allied troops saw at the end of World War II.
No foreign armies marched into the Gulag, for instance, partial cause of the estimated Soviet death toll of 20 million people.
But we did get a pretty good glimpse of what the Soviets did in Berlin from the free west side just across the Spree River. This film is based on the stories of the bold and sometimes tragic attempts at freedom during those 28 years of Soviet and Stasi tyranny of that divided city.
A fine script and cast bring the film alive. Richard Thomas leaves behind his John Boy roots from television’s “The Waltons” to become the leading force behind the construction of an escape tunnel. An interesting variant is that the tunnel diggers are all safe and free in West Berlin; they tunnel from the safe side into East Berlin because they all have loved ones left behind.
Contrasting with Richard Thomas’s earnest American Lieutenant Sandy Mueller is engineering professor Emerich Weber (Horst Buchholz), considerably older, more knowledgable, and very reluctant to get into a project he at first dubs impossible. When he fist sees their setup, he ridicules everything they have done, and he is absolutely correct. The hand-made tools and buckets they have so carefully created will not even begin to get the job done.
But Richard Thomas’s Mueller, in love and separated from his East German fiancée, refuses to take no for an answer. Somehow his youthful enthusiasm wins over the cynical engineer, who becomes their implacable leader, scowling, scolding, and finally embracing the rag tag students who recruit him to their cause.
We see courage and cowardice, fierce loyalty and craven betrayal, moves and countermoves, all while the tunnel slowly, shovelful after shovelful gets created. Everyone has secrets, parts of their stories they do not disclose, and many good deeds are indeed punished. Those who betray them must surely mete swift justice, and part of the film’s attraction is seeing how these green youths have to harden their hearts and then soften them as well as they uncover deceit and duplicity.
The final days and hours before the planned escape will rivet you to the screen. Of course, their intricate plans will fold in the fog of (the cold) war, just as the tunnel itself starts to shudder and leak.
But mankind is built for struggle and survival. They all will struggle and some lucky few will survive.
Relive some history too often overlooked with this inspiring story for the whole family. Not to be missed.
Enjoy this Berlin slant on traditional potato salad while you watch this tense film. It features, pickles, caraway seeds, and apple pieces. And instead of mayonnaise, a wine vinegar dressing. Guten apetit!
Here are a few more German dishes to complete your viewing:
Zesty Berlin Potato Salad
1 kg potatoes, waxy (Gold potatoes)
2 tbsp mustard
3 tbsp sugar or less
100 ml pickle liquid, preferably from German pickles
1-2 tbsp red or white wine vinegar
3-4 tbsp sunflower oil
4 medium size pickles
1 bigger onion
3-4 spring onions or bunch of chives
1 garlic clove (optional)
salt, pepper, caraway seeds (optional) to taste
– Boil potatoes with 1 tbsp salt and 1 tbsp caraway seeds. Don’t let them boil too long, they should still be a little bit firm, of course soft but not super soft. They should not fall apart. Drain them, let them cool off a bit then peel potatoes. they should be warm.
– Chop onion and garlic fine.
– Add mustard, sugar, pickles liquid, vinegar, oil, onion, garlic, salt and pepper into a bigger jar with lid, close it and shake it thoroughly. Oil and vinegar should be mixed well.
– Peel apple, remove core and seeds, cut in small pieces.
– Slice pickles and potatoes.
– In a big bowl place alternately potato slices, pickles and apples and add in between the layer some of the dressing. You also can add more salt and pepper to taste. Don’t mix it!
– At the end you will have more dressing in the bowl but this is okay. The salad needs to sit for at least 3-4 hours, it is the best to let it sit over night in the fridge.
– Before serving, mix the salad and add the chopped spring onions or chives. Mix again, then serve. There should not be more dressing than salad now as the potatoes should have soaked all of the liquid.