The Tunnel (dir. Kurt Bernhardt): sacrifice, sabotage and suffering combined with heroism and hope

Kurt Bernhardt, “The Tunnel / Der Tunnel” (1933)

Based on the eponymous 1913 novel by Bernard Kellerman and itself a second adaptation of the novel – an earlier silent version had been made in Germany in 1915 – “The Tunnel” is a science fiction film about an engineer who achieves his ambition of building a transatlantic tunnel linking Europe and North America. (British and French film versions of the novel were to appear in 1935, of which the British adaptation has been reviewed elsewhere on this blog.) After the usual haggling over financing the project, investors give the green light to one engineer Mac Allan (Paul Hartmann) to go ahead with his grand project and soon the tunnel’s construction is in progress from its start in Long Island in New York state.

From Allan’s point of view and perhaps that of his backers, the project seems to be going quite swimmingly; for the men at the coal face end of the project, there are many mishaps that result in fatalities. This results in considerable industrial unrest and it takes all the strength Allan can muster to rally the workers back on side and back to work. Some investors start to express misgivings and uncertainties about the project as well. If the day-to-day problems encountered aren’t enough, there are certain interests unhappy about the project who send a saboteur to wreck it.

Compared to the British film that was made two years later, this Austrian production has less forced drama and the acting and plotting appear more realistic. Unfortunately I didn’t continue beyond basic German-language study in high school and this film has no English subtitles so my understanding is limited to the basics of the plot and what I saw. Characters are realistic if a bit stereotyped – Allan’s wife is no more than walking and talking wallpaper here – and most of the drama in the film arises from the plot and narrative. Most of the sets are well-planned and designed and the film does not look at all cheap.

There’s a strong upstairs / downstairs feel to the film and it may be that one of its themes is to highlight the social and economic gulf between those financing the project and who depend on its success, and those engaged in its construction and who aren’t likely to benefit from it at all. But everyone associated with the project suffers from it in some way, directly or indirectly: Allan loses his wife, there’s a major accident in the tunnel that leads to an all-out riot among the workers, and one of the project backers commits suicide after he realises the police are after him, suspecting him of fraud – this in itself leads to delays in the tunnel’s constructions for scarcity of finance. Slowly but surely, in spite of what he and others have suffered during the project, Mac Allan and his men resolve to complete the tunnel and the film finishes on an optimistic and hopeful note.

The film is worth watching for those who have already seen the British and other adaptations of the novel though it suffers perhaps from not directly confronting issues of social and industrial democracy that arise. (The British film doesn’t even acknowledge that its workers have brains and can think for themselves.) Given that the film was made during a period in which most forms of socialism were feared and derided by the West – the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 was still fresh in most people’s minds, and the world was slowly coming out of economic depression caused by excesses of and contradictions and strains within capitalist economies – understandably the film’s makers were careful not to offend the German government of the day (led by Chancellor Adolf Hitler) with messages about treating plutocrats and workers with equal dignity. Still, director Kurt Bernhardt managed to offend the German government in other ways  and he eventually had to flee Europe altogether, later to resurface in Hollywood as Curtis Bernhardt to direct films.




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