The Tunnel


(4/10) In a nutshell: This German/French 1933 film pivots on the preposterously silly idea of building a tunnel between Europe and America. The acting is good and the tunnel sets impressive, but there is too much pointless melodrama the visuals are flat. Enjoyable as acuriosity. The review concerns the German version.

The Tunnel (Der Tunnel). 1933, Germany. Directed by Kurt Bernhardt. Written by Kurt Bernhardt, Reinhart Steinbicker, Henry Koster (uncredited). Based on the novel by Bernhard Kellermann. Starring: Paul Hartmann, Attila Hörbinger, Olly von Flint, Gustaf Gründgens, Max Schreck. Cinematography: Carl Hoffmann. Music: Walter Gronostay. Produced by Ernst Garden for Bavaria Film. IMDb score: 6.2

Paul Hartmann giving a passionate speak to his tunnel workers.

Paul Hartmann giving a passionate speak to his tunnel workers.

Der Tunnel (The Tunnel) is a curious project in a few ways. Firstly it is one of the films of the early thirties that were made into multilingual versions, using the same sets and script, and often the same director, but different actors (see F.P.1. Does Not Answer, 1932, review). This 1933 film was made as a German and a French version. A British remake was done in 1935. The film had previously been made in Germany as a silent movie in 1915.

The Tunnel is based on the novel of the same name by Bernhard Kellermann, written in 1913. Both the book and the film concern engineer Mac Allan, who leads a project for building a transatlantic tunnel between Europe and America. The book was written at a time of technological optimism, when aeronautics was still only in its very early infancy, and mass aviation across the Atlantic seemed like a lunatic’s idea. But with the rapid advances in mining and construction technology, it didn’t seem like an impossible notion to dig a great tunnel between the continents. Secondly, The Tunnel was written before the rise of communism in Russia and before World War I – a time when we were still talking about international brotherhood and unification. The book is a curious thing, as it imagines a future in the twenties and thirties where WWI did not take place. Instead Kellermann sees the rise of market capitalism and foresees the economic collapse of the late twenties and early thirties. The book does deal with an evil capitalist trying to derail the project to cash in on the stock market. Apparently a common theme, as it was also a prominent theme in Camille Flammarion’s 1893 book La Fin du Monde (Omega, the Last Days of the Earth), made into the Danish The End of the World (1916, review) and French End of the World (1931, review). One can point out that Kellermann describes the Jewish capitalist Woolf in an overtly antisemitic manner, which may be a reason as to why the German film received generous backing in 1933. Kurt Bernhardt himself was a Jew who fled the country shortly after completing the film, and removed the antisemitic content from the film.

One of the added benefits of this blog is that I’ve had the opportunity to brush up on my German, this is probably the fourth German film I’ve seen now without an English translation. Some of the details remain hazy, but with the help of a plot synopsis I was able to follow the action fairly well.

Gustav Gründgens as Woolf.

Gustaf Gründgens as Woolf.

This is the long and the short of it: Engineer Mac Allan (Paul Hartmann) presents his idea for a transatlantic tunnel to a crowd of potential backers, who are sceptical. He does, however, get the funding, much of it from the shady businessman Woolf (Gustaf Gründgens), and construction begins. Much of the beginning of the film is spent on setting up a social context for Allan, dealing with family matters, his friend Hobby the explosives expert (Attila Hörbinger) and various slow-moving meetings with backers and press. We see him going on publicity tours and visiting the workers as the digging goes on. Things start speeding up after a terrible accident. The tunnel floods, causing the deaths of dozens of workers. The backers on top lose faith, and the devious Woolf has put all his money on the hope that the project fails, which would make him a fortune on the stock market. After the accident he sends an agitator to infiltrate the workers, trying to get them to abandon the project. But Mac Allan wins them back with a fiery speech. Woolf then sends a saboteur to the Tunnel, again causing problems, and Allan is on the verge of giving up, but is convinced to continue by Hobby. Eventually the German team meats up with the American team in the middle of the Atlantic, and in a scene with dramatic ending music they embrace as brothers, uniting Europe and USA.

The good part of the film is that it is well acted – especially Paul Hartmann as Mac Allan gives a dramatic and solid performance. Hartmann was seen earlier as the inventor of the floating airplane platform in the Atlantic in the German sci-fi F.P.1. Does Not Answer. Gustaf Gründgens – going by the artist name Gustaf, much like Karloff, is brilliantly oily as Woolf. The production values are good, especially impressive are the scenes in the vast but still unnervingly claustrophobic tunnel.

Madeleine Ranaud and Jean Gabin in the French version of the film.

Madeleine Renaud and Jean Gabin in the French version of the film.

Unfortunately the bad parts outweigh the good. First of all the logic of the film is ridiculous. Despite the impossibility of the task, digging a tunnel between the continents might have seemed like a good idea in 1913. But in 1933 planes were already crossing the Atlantic. Even if there still wasn’t any regular passenger flights, many people already saw the notion as a possibility in a near future. Building a tunnel would have been a humongous waste of money and resources. And even if the tunnel shots are great, the film doesn’t score any points for futurism – as opposed to the British 1935 film that is a vastly more interesting movie visually.

But the real problem with the movie is the script. It starts off slow and doesn’t get to the main conflict between Woolf and Mac Allan until the middle of the film. The first half is divided between the rather dull descriptions of pedestrian work on the tunnel, and the rather pointless story of the failing marriage between Mac Allan and his wife Mary (Olly Flint). There are long sequences describing Mary’s discontent at Allan spending all his time on the job and forgetting about her. But this conflict just ebbs out during the film, and bears no real relevance. There are also a couple of other slight conflicts, that don’t really have anything to do with the main plot, and only succeed in slowing the film down and irritating the viewer.

Director Kurt Bernhardt celebrating his birthday in Hollywood with the stars of Miss Sadie Thompson: Aldo Ray, Rita Hayworth and José Ferrer.

Director Kurt Bernhardt celebrating his birthday in Hollywood with the stars of Miss Sadie Thompson: Aldo Ray, Rita Hayworth and José Ferrer.

Adolf Hitler had not yet taken complete control of Germany in 1933, but the Nazi ideology was by now tightening its grasp on culture. Jewish director Kurt Bernhardt would soon flee to the States, reinventing himself in Hollywood as Curtis Bernhardt. Nonetheless, some reviewers unaware of Bernhardt’s background have read some themes of Nazi propaganda into the film, such as the fiery speeches and melodramatic scenes in the tunnel that do have a slight ring of ”Arbeit macht Frei”. But one can probably surmise that the scenes rather express the quite popular socialist views in Europe at the time – as well as a pacifict notion of international collaboration. In USA Bernhardt had a fairly successful career, directing some so-called ”women’s films” including the Joan Crawford film Possessed (1947).

Gustaf in Tanz aud dem Vulkan.

Gustaf in Tanz auf dem Vulkan.

Out of the cast one notices of course Hartmann, as well as Gustaf. Gustaf was a celebrated stage actor, director and artistic director of some of Berlin’s most prestigious theatre houses. He had an ambivalent relationship with the Nazi regime. He didn’t endorse the Nazis, but nonetheless stayed in Germany and continued to work during the Second World War. He did at one point ask to be relieved of his post as artistic director, partly because of his homosexuality. This happened shortly after the known homosexual Nazi leader Ernst Röhm had been ousted by Hitler and his lackeys in the so-called Röhm putsch of 1934. The propaganda minister Hermann Göring refused to fire him – Göring would continue to be a stout supporter of Gustaf throughout the Nazi regime, even after a scandalous performance of Hamlet in 1936, that Nazi ideologists attacked for ”emphasizing the tragedy of lonely intellectuals in the midst of a criminal state”, putting extra weight behind lines like ”Denmark is a prison” and ”Time is out of joint”. After the war Gustaf was briefly put in jail, but thanks to a strong support from the artistic community, he was quickly rehabilitated and returned to stage as soon as 1946. Der Tunnel remains his only sci-fi film. He was the only one of the starring actors to appear in both the German and the French version of the film. Mac Allan was played by Jean Gabin in the French version. Gabin was a prized actor, mostly known for playing nasty characters – he is best remembered as inspector Maigret. Director Sergio Leone said Gabin was his favourite actor.

Max Schreck in Nosferatu.

Max Schreck in Nosferatu.

In a supporting role we see Max Schreck, who rose to fame that has achieved mythological proportions with his portrayal of Graf Orlok – or Dracula – in the 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu. Schreck died suddenly in 1936, only 56 years old. He was immortalized by Willem Dafoe in the surrealistic fictional portrayal of the making of Nosferatu, Shadow of a Vampire, in 2000. Theatre actor Richard Ryen was not a very well known actor in films. Despite this he was able to scratch a living out of playing Nazis in American films after he fled across the Atlantic at the outbreak of WWII. He is perhaps best known for the portrayal of Colonel Heinz in Casablanca (1942). It was a small role, but since he was constantly following around the main villain, played by countryman Condrad Veidt, he received lots of screen time.

Most of the other supporting actors were less known working actors, and many of them stayed in Germany and worked within the Nazi system, which meant their careers were more or less over by the end of WWII, as Nazi collaborators were smoked out of the arts. Ferdinand Marian even acted in the infamous antisemitic propaganda film Jud Süß in 1940. Director of photography Carl Hoffmann was one of the most noted cameramen in the silent era of German film, beside Karl Freund, and worked for Fritz Lang (Metropolis, review) on films like Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924) and Faust (1926). He also filmed the 1920 (unauthorized) version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Der Januskopf, for F.W. Murnau (Nosferatu, Sunrise, 1928). Unlike Freund, he remained in Germany during the war, and worked within the Nazi system.

What is interesting is that I have a distinct memory of seeing a version of the film where the ending was the same as in the book: After toiling underground for 15 years, the workers reach America, just to realize that aviation has progressed and there are now transatlantic flights, thus rendering the tunnel useless. This ending doesn’t seem to be present in either the 1915 film of the 1935 British film. It is possible that I have only seen stills from an alternate ending from some of these films, though. Have to investigate.

The Tunnel (Der Tunnel). 1933, Germany. Directed by Kurt Bernhardt. Written by Kurt Bernhardt, Reinhart Steinbicker, Henry Koster (uncredited). Based on the novel by Bernhard Kellermann. Starring: Paul Hartmann, Attila Hörbinger, Olly von Flint, Gustaf Gründgens, Max Schreck, Otto Wernicke, Max Weydner, Elga Brink, Richard Ryen. Cinematography: Carl Hoffmann. Editing: Gottlieb Madl. Production design: Heinz Fenchel, Max Seefelder, Karl Vollbrecht. Music: Walter Gronostay. Produced by Ernst Garden for Bavaria Film.


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