It's little more than a footnote to today's generation, who has an entire world of information at their fingertips, but uses their power to post shaming videos and offensive memes. But once upon a time, the Berlin Wall was the tangible equivalent of Net Neutrality, with the government on the side of East Germany taking the place of Internet censorship. Only much, much worse. From 1961 to 1989, even trying to get across to the West side of the wall without going through proper checkpoints and channels would get you a one-way ticket to the great gig in the sky itself. But that didn't prevent people from trying just the same, including a once-hailed mass migration of 29 people who managed to tunnel their way under the famous barrier of oppression.
Naturally, such an exodus warranted a big Hollywood production. Only it wasn't big. Instead, a small group of American filmmakers flew to Berlin in 1962 to join forces with a European cast and crew in order to bring a slightly fictionalized (and definitely over-dramatized) account of the Escape from East Berlin. And, when you take into account the (presumably) modest budget, excellent black-and-white photography by Georg Krause, and a strong atmosphere in general, the fact that Escape from East Berlin is such a low-key film probably makes it all the more memorable. Even if it, just like the Berlin Wall itself, has been mostly forgotten by the ignorant, social media-happy people of today.
Here, the great Don Murray is the sole American actor in the whole production, fits in surprisingly well with his accented co-stars as a lowly chauffeur named Kurt Schröder. Employed as the mechanic and operator of the official government car for Major Carl Schell (Maximilian's older brother, making his American film debut here). Unlike everybody else in East Berlin, Kurt is content with his life. After all, he has a job working on the car and driving the Major around to various affairs. In-between all that, he gets to work on an affair of a different nature with the Major's wife (Kai Fischer). In fact, the socialist life is so good for Kurt, he could quite possibly land a job as the governor of a totalitarian future.
But that all changes after his determined coworker (Horst Janson) smashes a company truck through the Wall and is mowed down by a parade of bullets, to wit the deceased's kid-sister Erika (Christine Kaufmann) decided to blindly try a similar accidental suicide attempt, and is rescued from receiving a blessing of gunfire by Kurt. Sadly for Kurt, this puts him and his family on the radar of their Communist overlords. Before too long, Erika, Kurt's neighbor, and Kurt's family alike are breathing down the brightminded lad's neck to construct a method of crossing the Wall. Kurt reluctantly agrees, deciding that the only efficient way to get over the Wall is to go under it. And so begins Don Murray's Great Escape!
Werner Klemperer (who would star alongside Carl Schell's brother in Judgment at Nuremberg) co-stars as another - though mysterious - contestant in this cold Cold War (having been defeated in the previous war by Bob Crane time and time again); Ingrid van Bergen, Edith Schultze-Westrum, and Bruno Fitz portray some of Mr. Murray's family; and Anita Kupsch has a minor role as an office worker whom the Don flirts with when he's not battening down the hatches of Mrs. Major. An assortment of veteran German character actors also appear in other small roles in this fun production directed by Robert Siodmak. Erwin Becker, the 81-year-old mastermind behind the real life Tunnel 29, served as technical advisor.
The Warner Archive Collection has done a bit of digging itself lately, unearthing many enjoyable, forgotten productions from the past for future generations to probably ignore wholeheartedly (although, if we're lucky, they might make a few memes out of these!). Escape from East Berlin comes to us in a rather lovely 1.85:1 matted widescreen transfer that is pretty devoid of any imperfections (it's most certainly a lot cleaner than Don Murray's wool sweater gets throughout the course of the film, I can tell you that!), and the mono English audio track suffices admirably. A non-anamorphic widescreen trailer for the film - which makes extra sure to exploit the actual event that inspired this film - is included as this manufactured-on-demand disc's one and only special feature.
Though it isn't award winning material by any means, Escape from East Berlin is a great way to pass some time, and maybe - just maybe - inspire someone to look up the true story of Tunnel 29 (or perhaps some of the other film/television adaptations of the same escape). I recommend it, either way, because who hasn't dreamed of seeing Governor Breck and Colonel Klink playing in the dirt together?