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A true German story

About a legendary escape tunnel in Berlin



A true German story

About a legendary escape tunnel in Berlin


As long as walls are built, there will be people to overcome them.“

– Peter Schmidt

The movie

A true German story


On 14 September 1962, 29 people fled from East to West Berlin through a 1,500-foot long tunnel. A group of West Berlin students escaped in in a daring operation, dug the tunnel in months of work. Even though the German Federal Bureau of Investigation („Verfassungsschutz“) and the American Secret Service were informed about the escape tunnel, the tunnel builders were able to keep it secret from the GDR state security. The tunnel construction was sponsored and documented by NBC, an American film company, and has gone to history as Tunnel 29.

August 13, 1961: the GDR (German Democratic Republic ) closes the sector borders in Berlin. Overnight the city is divided. An escape to the West is becoming more dangerous every day. But on September 14, 1962, exactly one year, one month and one day after the wall was built a group of 29 people from the GDR succeeds in a spectacular escape through a 1,500-foot tunnel to the west. For more than four months students from West Berlin have dugged this tunnel. They risked their lives – for friends, relatives, lovers and their political ideals.

Because the tunnel builders run out of money after only a few meters, they came up with the idea of marketing the escape tunnel. They sold the film rights of the story exclusively to NBC, an American television station.

And so, for the first time in film history, a camera is up close to the escape of people under the Berlin Wall – images that have gone around the world just days after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The story was realized in 1999 in the award-winning documentary film „The Tunnel“ for ARD. Today, 20 years later, the film is to be renarrated and edited as a „remake“ on HD and in 16:9 format.

The story and the spectacular NBC footage, which was recovered at that time in the attic of one of the tunnel builders houses, have lost nothing of their explosive and unique character. On August 13, 2020, the now 85-year-old tunnel builders will meet again for the first time in 60 years to work out why their paths have separated.

Together with the material of the documentary film „The Tunnel“ (1999), the meeting forms the framework for a documentary drama that connects the great political panorama of the Iron Curtain with emotionally charged biographies. It is a story about the daring of young people, about trust and solidarity, about overcoming walls and freedom of movement as a highly valued good.


A film by Marcus Vetter

Release in 2021

The story

How it all began…

With PETER SCHMIDT, the operation „travel agency“ takes its starting point. He lived together with his childhood love and first wife EVELYNE and daughter ANNETTE on the
eastern city edge of Berlin in Wilhelmshagen. The rapid construction of the Wall cut him off from his University in the West. While for PETER the panorama increasingly darkened, West Berliners were still able to cross the sector border. His Italian friends and fellow students LUIGI SPINA aka „GIGI“ and DOMENICO SESTA aka „MIMMO“ recognize the dramatic condition of their friend during a visit to the East, who – to make matters worse – is about to be called into military service shortly afterwards. They want to help him.

„We were lucky at the beginning, there was a man whose uncle had a sawmill in West Germany and he told him about this project without telling him where. And this sawmill owner was so enthusiastic about the idea that he made the wood available. This then came to Berlin by truck and so we had the support material for the time being.“

Unsuspectingly, they throw themselves into a risky adventure. They are planning an escape tunnel. As art students, however, they do not understand enough about building a tunnel, so they turn to their fellow students from the neighbouring technical University and find two  important partners: HASSO HERSCHEL ans civil engineer ULI PFEIFFER. Both had only recently left East Berlin into the West. An adventurous and risky venture begins, of which political implications the early 20 year olds themselves were not yet aware at that time.

After digging about 20 meters, the tunnel builders already run out of money. To be able to dig further, the two Italians offer the American news channel NBC to film their work for money. NBC‘s black-and-white recordings are a unique contemporary historical document and part of the story told here.

The place

Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

First, a suitable location for the escape tunnel must be found. Since the groundwater in Berlin is very high, only an elevated area close to the wall could be considered. The area arround Prenzlauer Berg seems ideal for the project – it is about 150 meters above sea level. The street „Bernauerstrasse“ runs along the west side of the wall for several kilometres. In this street they discovered an old porcelain factory which seems to be the perfect place for the operation. There they would be able to store the huge amounts of earth that are produced during the excavation work inconspicuously. They pretend to the owner that they want to rent the cellar as a music rehearsal room. He agrees. Later it turns out that he had quickly seen through their actual intention, but keeps silence because he hates the GDR for his own personal reasons.

The street called „Rheinsberger Straße“ is targeted on the east side. It is located near the wall and is yet outside the controlled border area. There they seek friendship with a Bulgarian who has an apartment at „Rheinsberger Straße 66“. During a party, to which the Bulgarian invites them, MIMMI moves secretly away and finds a suitable point for the exit of the escape tunnel in the cellar of the house. Entry and exit have been found. According to the calculations, the tunnel must be 166 meters long from basement to basement. An undertaking that can nott be accomplished without money.

The initial capital

and more helpers

PETER SCHMIDT‘s mother still had money in a West Berlin account. She wants to make this money available to the tunnel builders. As a citizen of the GDR, however, she can no longer access her account. The money must be withdrawn personally. An authorization to one of the tunnel builders is the solution. But how are they supposed to smuggle the paper with the authorization across the border?

Once again MIMMI has a brilliant idea. When he was a schoolboy, he once read a newspaper report describing how a smuggler brought forbidden foreign currency wrapped in cigarette paper across the border. You get Mrs. Schmidt‘s signature on a faded piece of greaseproof paper, wrap the document in a cigarette case and smuggle it across the sector border.

„He first removed the tobacco from a filter cigarette. Then he rolled up a piece of very thin paper of about 5×8 cm and coloured the visible surface with pastel crayons in tobacco colour. He carefully pushed the dyed roll into the empty cigarette case and carefully stuffed it with tobacco again. Now he compared the prepared cigarette with the others. At first glance, there was no difference to the other cigarettes.“

In case of an inspection, it was agreed to smoke the document. They have not been discovered. A short time later they have the starting capital for their operation.

Now more students of the technical University are being initiated into their plan. Every single one of them had to be examined and must maintain the utmost secrecy. All these people, materials and work equipment must be brought unnoticed day after day and night after night into the basement of the factory building. The GDR border guards watch every movement on the other side of the wall with watchful eyes. In order to be able to handle this logistics unnoticed, they get themselves a transporter vehicle. On May 9, 1962 the time had come. The excavation work begins.

The completion of the tunnel is scheduled for August 12, 1962. 166 meters have to be overcome. The parents of a friend own a construction company. From there they get the building material. But already after 25 meters they have to give up. They run out of oxygen. A factor they had not considered. In a fan factory in West Berlin, they get a fan with hoses. They are lucky. The owner gives them the valuable piece and do not even ask unpleasant questions.

The Deal
with the NBC

and the water pipe burst

But soon wood, steel and concrete are no longer be able to be financed with the inicial capital. The needed quantities become too large. A second time it seems they have to give up. But again the two Italians have a brilliant idea. At that time the feature film „Tunnel 28“ with Christine Kaufmann, a famous German actor, is being shot at the UFA in Tempelhof. This film describes the fate of those refugees who escaped through a tunnel on January 24th of the same year, under the street „Oranienburg Chaussee“. GIGI and MIMMI made the film production company an offer to shoot parts of the feature film at their original location instead of in the studio and to finance the company in return.

However, Fritjof Meyer, press spokesman for UFA at Tempelhof (now a journalist at Spiegel), refuses. It is too risky for him to shoot with a feature film team in the original tunnel. He fears that the GDR border police could discover the tunnel through the array of people and technology. However, he puts a contact to the American television station National Broadcasting Cooperation (NBC). An editor from NBC, Gary Stindt, looks at the tunnel, inspects the exit on the other side of the tunnel, and the tunnel itself and agrees to document and financa the operation. In return, an advance payment of 60,000 Westmark and the entire German-language rights to the original material have been negotiated. The two Italians are keeping this deal secret from HASSO HERSCHEL and the other tunnel builders for the time being. So the shooting is planned in a way that the filming will always be done in the shift in which the Italians and some insiders work in the tunnel.

The end of the tunnel is now directly under the wall. They have reached the GDR border area. But then a water pipe of the sewage system on the West Berlin side bursts. Large parts of the tunnel are flooded.

“The tunnel was relatively flat, just four or five meters below the road, so the entrance was relatively flat. The disadvantage was that the water pipes broke because of the loosening…”

Part of the money from the NBC is used to buy a pump to pump the water out of the tunnel.
For the Italians it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep the source of the money secret from the others. The burst water pipe is not noticed by the West Berlin authorities yet. The tunnel builders have to notify the water company in order not to let the company and blow the operation to pieces. You will inaugurate the head of the water company. Soon after, the defective pipe is shut down. Now they have to wait until the clay soil is dry.

A little later Egon Bahr, then press spokesman for Willi Brandt, summons Spina and Sesta to the town hall of „Schöneberg“. The manager of the water company had not kept quiet. Egon Bahr makes it unmistakably clear to the two Italians that if a film about an escape tunnel were to be made, and he had heard this, the two Italians would have to leave Berlin. Spina and Sesta are wrapped in silence.

The secret service

and the other tunnel

Then they got a call from the German Federal Intelligence Service („Verfassungsschutz“). They have to appear for a secret meeting at the „Ernst Reuter Platz“ in West Berlin. Two agents in trench coats came to the meeting, but they refuse to reveal their identity. The tunnel builders then suggest having their identity cards checked at a police station on Ernst-Reuter-Platz. The agents respond to this suggestion and they are „clean“. From now on, the West german Secret Service is also involved in the „Escape Tunnel“ operation. Another conversation follows with a limping colonel in „Pobjelski Allee“ in Berlin-Grunewald. They have to hand over to him all the names involved in the escape tunnel. For their own safety, the colonel promises to have the names checked. No one have been exposed to be an informer for the GDR. The construction of the escape tunnel can continue.

More than two months have passed since operation „Reisebüro“ (travel agency) has started. The clay soil is nearly dry and they are now directly under the death strip of the Berlin Wall. The tunnel retrieval units of the GDR have meanwhile discovered other escape tunnels and arrested many escape helpers already.

The work is getting riskier every day. One day a man called „butcher“ contacted the tunnel builders. He himself is dugging a short tunnel in „Neukölln“, which is already completed. He makes the trio an offer to get their „people“ through his tunnel as well. The troupe remains sceptical, but leaves it to their friends in the GDR to decide for themselves whether they want to take up the offer. On day the people who take the risk are brought to the exit. In the side streets of the „Laubenkolonie“, they notice trucks and black limousines parked there inconspicuously. The escape action is aborted and the escape tunnel is discovered the same day. „Butchers‘ men are arrested but „Butcher“ himself gets away. Today we know that the group has been infiltrated by the „Stasi“ (state security service of the GDR). The „Stasi“ archives refer to pertinent reports by Kurt Siegfried Uhse, who later escaped to Thailand before his trail was lost.

The operation is becoming more and more dangerous. Time is pressing. GIGI, MIMMO and HASSO therefore change their plan. They research another exit – one street earlier – in a cellar in „Schönholzerstraße 7“, but this is kept secret even from their own people. So they calculate the excavation work so that the tunnel passes directly under their new target cellar, but continue to dig in the old direction.

The breakthrough

and the courier

On September 14, 1962 after four months and five days of digging, they finally arrived at the great moment. The cellar in the „Schönholzerstrasse 7“ is to be broken through. None of the escapees know how the escape will take place. For the tunnel builders, the anxious question now arises: Where would they really get out? Would their calculations prove to be correct?

The first breakthrough attempt fails. They hit a concrete pillar. But they try it again. One meter to the right. The second breakthrough attempt is successful.

Friends in the East are informed by a system specially devised by HASSO HERSCHEL. They meet at prearranged pubs in „Prenzlauer Berg“ to wait for further signs. The courier service is provided by ELLEN, who later is becoming MIMMI‘s wife. She is the only one – apart from the already used Italians – who legally can enter the GDR for 24 hours. From a certain place in „Prenzlauer Berg“ they have a perfect viewpoint to a residential building in the „Bernauerstraße“ in the west. From there, the tunnel builders observe every movement in the border area.

 A white sheet hanging out of the window on the west side signals to her that everything is okay. Her job now is to visit one restaurant after the other to give the agreed signs. She immediately recognizes the people waiting to flee. Everyone has put on their best clothes. One is even in his communion suit. With the greatest attention these people watch every movement of her. She orders a coffee and lights a cigarette with her right hand. But she is shocked to discover that there is no coffee at all in this pub. Should the plan fail because of this? She tries it with a cognac. At the same time she complains loudly about the missing coffee. The sign is recognized. 3 minutes later some guests leave the restaurant. They are the friends. At intervals of one hour she is been visiting one place after another. The machinery of escape is set in motion. After she has left the last pub, she stops a taxi in the direction of „Friedrichstraße“. Once there, she says goodbye to the taxi driver and hands him all her money. She throws her notes with the codes into a trash can. Now nothing can go wrong anylonger.

The escape

of 29 people

Meanwhile, the friends from the GDR pass by „Schönholzerstraße 7“ in groups of two and three and quietly recite verses from a song called „Panzerkreuzer Potjemkin“ as a slogan. One group after the other opens the door. They are led down the cellar stairs. There is a small hole in the floor. You must put up your hands and let yourself fall. In the tunnel two more escape helpers are
waiting to show them the way. 29 people can be rescued in this way before the tunnel becomes impassable due to a crude second water break. Among the rescued are HASSOS FAMILY and our protagonist PETER SCHMIDT, his mother, his wife EVELYN and their child.

Arriving in the West, the refugees are immediately taken to a West Berlin apartment of the tunnel builders, where they are given new clothes. Everyone gets a small starting money, which the tunnel builders still can pay from the NBC advance. In the Berlin room of that apartment there are clotheslines for the refugees‘ wet and muddy clothes. But these clotheslines are not hung up with clothes, but with money. The money of the Schmidt family, who had sold their pretty little house shortly before to bring their money to the West.

They could have endangered the whole operation and the lives of the others with this action. But the tunnel builders were lucky once again. The successful tunnel escape is celebrated in a glittering festival by NBC. It is also the tragic turning point for Peter Schmidt, whose wife Eveline falls in love with one of the tunnel builders and leaves her husband. His little daughter, who Peter had helped to get through the tunnel in this daring venture, grows up in the new family and will never see her father again.

The film made by the NBC was postponed under diplomatic pressure from Egon Bahr and Willi Brandt in September 1962 and released shortly before the Cuban Crisis. This is confirmed by American documents. Only months later the film was broadcasted in over 30 countries around the world. In the USA alone, 30 million Americans saw the story of „Tunnel 29“. For West Berlin it was a unique public relation campaign. But the influence of this first live shot escape on future media coverage, the development of new TV formats and the creative means of documentary films goes much further.


The work was so strenuous that even more people were needed. Again the “Tall” is the contact person for more volunteers: JOACHIM NEUMANN and OSKAR from the WOLLANK STREET group join the troupe.


is the actual starting point of the story. Because of him, the tunnel was built in the first place. The plan was created at his home in East Berlin together with his fellow student LUIGI
SPINA, called GIGI. While the tunnel was being built, he had to stand idly by in the East, watching his friends making slow progress and repeatedly breaking water pipes, tunnel detection units and spies disturbed in their work were. PETER SCHMIDT is the key to many interpersonal conflicts in history.


East Berlin, 1955: The student HASSO HERSCHEL is arrested for political pamphlets and sentenced to five years in prison. He is sent to „Bautzen“, the branch office „Schwarze Pumpe“ – a prison which becomes sadly famous for its brutality. After his release he meets his friend and later fellow tunnel builder Uli Pfeifer. They both fleed to the West. Hasso Herschel, who has to leave his sister behind, promises to catch up with her and her child. Soon afterwards, he begins studying at the Technical University in West Berlin, where he learns about the plans of the Italian Spina on campus. He takes part in the escape operation and develops a sophisticated communication system between escape helpers from the West and friends and relatives on the other side.


Berlin 1961: Shortly after the Berlin Wall was built, ULI PFEIFFER from „Bautzen“ managed to escape through the Berlin underground railway tunnel. His girlfriend of many years was to follow one day later. But she is arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison. For ULI PFEIFFER a world is collapsing. Through HASSO HERSCHEL, the now graduate civil engineer learns about the Italian plan. His exact static and course calculations of the tunnel are the prerequisite for the success of the operation.


Gorizia, Italy 1945: The northern Italian border cities of Trieste and Gorizia are divided after the war. LUIGI SPINA, a 9-year-old boy, lives in the western part. The eastern part of Gorizia falls to Yugoslavia. A barbed wire divides the city. In 1961 LUIGI SPINA starts studying at the art University „Hochschule der Künste“ in West Berlin. Shortly afterwards he experiences the division of a city for the second time. GIGI wants to help his fellow student PETER SCHMIDT, who lived in the East as a border crosser and studied in the West, because the construction of the wall has blocked the way to the university forever. The idea of an escape tunnel is born.


Gorizia, Italy 1956: Uprisings in Hungary. Solidarity rallies in the Italian-Yugoslav border town of Gorizia, into which Domenico Sesta, a high school graduate from Puglia, also slides. Domenico, whose father died as an Italian soldier in the Spanish Civil War, was housed in a seminary until the age of 15, when he finally came to Gorizia to take his high school
diploma. In Gorizia he met LUIGI SPINA. After graduating from high school he follows his friend to West Berlin to study architecture. Together with GIGI he designs the escape plan.


A production of Filmperspektive

in cooperation with addictivefilm
Year of production1999 / 2020
A production ofFilmperspektive
In coproduction withaddictivefilm
writer & directorRenate Nebe
Marcus vetter
Director of photographyChristoph Lerch
Immo Rentz
Jörg Widmer
Assistant DirectorAchim Johne
SoundRudolf Schwarz
Heiko Toman
Sound mixWolfgang Ort
Camera assistanceThomas Frischhut
Ulrich Vollert
Heiko Wentorp
Conny Wiederhold
Camera assistanceÖle Jürgens
Assistant editorTorsten Pietsch
Props Ralf Becker
Anina Diener
Angela Grassl
StylingThomas Follner
Recording ManagementMichael Becker
David Svoboda
SpeakerHans Mittermiller
MusicChristian Dähn
Heiner Kondschak
Production managementGerhard Hoffmann
Commissioning editorJulia Gerdes
ProducersSusan Schulte
Marcus Vetter
Ulf Meyer