Escape from East Berlin (1962)
“Headline Hot! Filmed Where It Happened!”
Director: Robert Siodmak
Cast: Don Murray, Christine Kaufmann, Werner Klemperer
Synopsis: In January of 1962, 29 East Berliners escaped to West Berlin via a tunnel they had dug beneath the Berlin Wall, led by Erwin Becker, a chauffeur in the car pool of the East Germany Parliament
Despite being made so soon after the construction of the Berlin wall, Escape from East Berlin is no exploitation movie. It is a tightly constructed and suspenseful tale of the attempt of a family living close to the wall to tunnel beneath it to freedom.
Don Murray, managing a creditable foreign accent, plays Kurt Schroder, the eldest son of a poor family whose father is presumably dead. Despite his satisfaction with life behind the wall, Kurt agrees to help his family and the sister of a friend who died while attempting to flee, to tunnel to freedom. From then on, the movie plays pretty much like a prisoner-of-war escape movie: the family time the drilling of the basement wall to coincide with the uncle’s band practice to mask any noise; they devise a system to warn of the approach of guard patrols, etc.
The movie was filmed in (West) Berlin, and manages to convey a convincing atmosphere of oppression and decay without laying on the misery and despair too thick. The decision to shoot the movie in black and white, if made for artistic reasons, was a wise one, as it adds greatly to the oppressive atmosphere.
Perhaps the least forgivable of the movie’s small faults is the way in which Christine Kaufmann’s character is wasted after her introduction as the protagonist of all that occurs after her appearance. Left with little to do after this, her character becomes increasingly redundant, and the revelation of her brother’s death (to which the viewer is privy from the off) is included almost as an afterthought — we see almost no reaction from her. The final betrayal that places the escape plan in jeopardy (but which does, admittedly, set up an exciting race-against-time finale) is also rushed and unconvincing.
Despite these quibbles, the film is suspenseful and well made, and certainly deserves to be more widely known.
(Reviewed 4th May 2002)