During the fifties, while Hollywood studios were slowly shifting from using exclusively in-house talent pools toward freelance artists, a number of German directors ventured back to their homeland, accepting offers to help boost the native film industry, and perhaps seek a change from the more formulaic works mandated by American studios.
Alongside Fritz Lang and William Dieterle, Robert Siodmak made his own share of German and European films (namely Euro co-productions), either in German, French, or English.
During his lengthy career, Siodmak tackled almost every genre, including monster films (Son of Dracula), crime films (The Killers), postwar social noir (Criss Cross), buddy comedies (The Crimson Pirate), and German princess melodramas (Katia), but Escape from East Berlin was a very different animal.
Like the anti-Semitic drama Criss Cross, Escape was also designed as a social drama meant to provoke outrage at something rotten, but it’s also an exploitation movie benefitting from historical events that were still unfolding – the erection of the Berlin Wall, and the standoff between Communist East Germany/Soviet Russia, and western powers America, France, and Britain.
Escape is centered around an extended family living in one of the few homes close to the Berlin Wall, and their realization of how things will only get worse if they stay in the East: curfews, lack of consumer goods, suspicions neighbours, and a life bordering on futility while West Germany is undergoing a rapid economic and social growth.
Distrust, social conformity, and penalty of death are what motivate the family to badger son Kurt (Don Murray) into enacting his plan of digging a tunnel under the wall to the West.
Kurt, a driver for a military executive, espouses to be a party loyalist; he figures rather simplistically that the tunnel will put an end to his family’s daily nagging, and when he informs the local authorities of ‘discovering’ the tunnel after his family’s safe passage, he’s convinced he’ll be feted as a national hero. That plan gets turfed when he’s drawn to Erika (Christine Kaufman), the sister of a fellow mechanic who died trying to crash through wall in his truck, and climb over barbed wire mesh.
Although based on the real-life escape of truck driver Erwin Becker (who’s also credited as a consultant), the script’s only dramatic pull lies in the escape, which Siodmak beautifully constructs using expressionistic compositions and montage, as well as intercutting commie marionettes gathering around and swarming into the family’s house while Kurt & Co. hurry through the tunnel.
Although the screenwriters tried to create extra suspense by leaving Kurt’s decision to flee to the West until the very end, there’s little doubt he’d stay behind, given the tunnel is a success, and he’s slowly falling for Erika.
The film’s strong points are the West Berlin locations doubling for the East, such as the bombed out streets, the family’s war-damaged home, and an immutable bleakness from the lonely islands of surviving structures.
Also of note is Hans-Martin Majewski’s brassy score, except for some truly bizarre instrumentation during the digging sequences that are more baroquely comedic then dramatically tense.
The cast is largely comprised of German actors, such as Kaufman and Ingrid van Bergen (playing Kurt’s sister), both of whom co-starred in the dreary rape trial drama Town of Pity; Carl Schell (The Blue Max) as an East German officer Kurt drives about town; and Werner Klemperer (TV’s Hogan’s Heroes) playing a mysterious stranger named Walter who may or may not be secret service mole espousing to join other potential escapees. (Perhaps due the script’s economy, Walter’s alliance with Kurt is formalized quite quickly, allowing the last act to cover the escape.)
The weakest link is American actor Don Murray (Bus Stop), whose accent is a slurred blend of pseudo-German and wild west American. Murray also plays Kurt with a lot of swagger, and the actor’s huge physique also makes broad hand and arm gestures cartoonish. The dialogue is clichéd, and the English dubbing isn’t always in sync. (A few scenes where actors seem to mouth German leads one to believe the film was partially shot in German for native audiences.)
Escape was released in the fall of 1962, about nine months after Becker’s January escape, and more than a year after the Berlin Wall had been erected. The country was by then divided into East and West Germany, so as a hot-button exploitation melodrama, it’s likely the film’s message of ‘fighting oppression’ was welcomed by its target audiences, particularly West Berliners living with a wall that snaked through entire neighbourhoods.
It’s worth noting Billy Wilder’s 1961 comedy One, Two, Three at this point because it similarly dealt with the issue of a divided city, albeit before the wall’s erection.
Wilder’s approach was to satirize the bureaucratic idiocy of four powers sharing massive Berlin, as well as the chaos of average citizens navigating through checkpoints and governmental red tape to accomplish daily chores and social activities. Wilder’ more comedic poke at the communist leaders in the Eastern Sector painted them as buffoons, and one could deduce the film’s message was this simple: you can’t deny a consumer nation the goodies it craves.
Obviously the desire for Coca-Cola didn’t destroy the East German regime in 1990, but in retrospect, the product symbolizes the lifestyle and consumer choice that people wanted just as much as the freedom to leave, and the Eastern regime were ostensibly boneheads for believing they could hold back western culture when it was next door, with advertising signage in view, radio broadcasts TV signals flying overhead, and letters from relatives in the West passing across the border.
However, Wilder’s film had the misfortune of being released in December of 1961, months after the border between East and West Germany was sealed. What seemed absurd and amusing in early 1961 didn’t play well at Christmastime, particularly when East German soldiers had orders to shoot anyone attempting top breach the wall (such as the infamous case of Peter Fechter).
Siodmak’s movie was retitled Tunnel 28 for British, West German and other European audiences, and the production’s quick turnaround ensured keen interest in the West, while Eastern officials probably branded the film as anti-democratic fascist propaganda. (For the unfamiliar, East Germany called itself the GDR – the German Democratic Republic.)
Although Cold War thrillers like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), Funeral in Berlin (1966) or the revenge film The Odessa File (1974) took advantage of the political and social climate in West Berlin, Escape was among the first films to dramatize an elaborate escape by average citizens.
Besides Becker’s 1961 flight with 28 people, there was the November 1962 tunnel dug by students that allowed 29 people to flee (dubbed ‘Tunnel 29’), as well as the October 1961 escape supervised by Hasso Herschel, which was dramatized in the superb German production Der Tunnel / The Tunnel (2001).
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan