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MOVIE REVIEW

'The Tunnel' is a breakout success

Spending two hours and 40 minutes in a hole under the Berlin Wall may not sound like anyone's idea of a good time, but ''The Tunnel," a 2001 German drama making its belated Boston area debut at the Kendall today, is a grabber from beginning to end. It's based on the true story of a group of Berliners who in 1962 dug their relatives out of East Germany, and at times it's too good, too dramatically convenient, to seem true. What ''The Tunnel" lacks in subtlety, though, it makes up for in craft, conviction, and conscience. Above all, it's a gripping great-escape yarn of the sort we don't see much anymore.

And it has in Harry Melchior (Heino Ferch) a hero with both charisma and moral gravitas. When we meet him, it's August 1961 and Harry has just become Germany's swimming champion. Outside, the soldiers of the socialist German Democratic Republic are stringing barbed wire across the city, and rumors are swirling that a wall will soon go up. In the government's inner sanctum, Harry is treated as a conquering communist sports god, but he has prison time in his past due to his part in the June 1953 rebellion, and he wants no part of state glory. Within weeks he has defected to West Berlin and is urging his best friend, an engineer named Matthis (Sebastian Koch), to start thinking big.

Both men have reasons for wanting to dig back to East Berlin. Harry's beloved sister Lotte (Alexandra Maria Lara) and her family are there, and so are Matthis's wife, Carola (Claudia Michelsen), and newborn son. Those in the crew they assemble in the basement of an abandoned factory on the west side of the wall have relatives and friends to get out, too, 32 in all, and only 148 meters to dig. That's about a 10th of a mile; not much, but you try it with tanks over your head and your family's lives at stake.

Directed by Roland Suso Richter, ''The Tunnel" plays out as a muscular genre film given real-world urgency by the characters' yearning for freedom; you feel the escalating panic of this particular time and place, and the terror that comes from seeing the doors of a police state slam shut. Richter and screenwriter Johannes Betz dive into the juicy nuts and bolts of the feat -- the Bosch electric sledgehammers and such -- and let us get to know the players: Fred the fallen aristocrat and mama's boy (Felix Eitner), Vic the suave Italian-American undercover man (Mehmet Kurtulus), Fritzi (Nicolette Krebitz) the cafe waitress whose fiance is on the other side.

Also on the other side is a whole lot of informing going on, prompted by the silken chief of security Oberst Kruger (Uwe Kockisch), which entangles the relatives and the operation itself in a web of mistrust. The whole thing sounds too melodramatic for words, and occasionally it is -- including a sex scene that makes emotional sense but still seems dropped in from another movie. That follows a scene of violence by the wall, however, that delivers in the most harrowingly human way. Time and again, dramatic tidiness is trumped by immediacy and good old-fashioned suspense.

And it's hard to carp at the more convenient plot turns when the tunnel is flooding from a burst pipe and the heroes have to figure out how to hire an East German plumber. Ferch makes Harry an appealingly tough center of attention -- he's a little like Bruce Willis with the smugness burned away -- but the performances are solid and varied all around. You're willing to go underground for and with these people, and to cheer when they stagger back into daylight.

One of the more unbelievable plot tangents even turns out to have been true: Strapped for cash, the conspirators let NBC finance the operation in exchange for allowing an American camera crew to film the rescue. (The footage was aired once and, to my knowledge, has only showed up in a 1999 German documentary since.) The network clearly realized it was onto a story tailor-made for heartache, sacrifice, triumph, and audience satisfaction. So did MGM, which made the fictionalized ''Escape From East Berlin" in 1962. So, happily, do the makers of ''The Tunnel."

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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