„As long as walls are built, there will be people to overcome them.“
– Peter Schmidt
13 August 1961: the GDR closes the sector borders in Berlin. The city is divided overnight. Escape to the West becomes 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 manage a spectacular escape through a 135-meter tunnel to the West. For more than four months, students from West Berlin, including two Italians, painstakingly constructed this tunnel. They risked their lives – for friends, relatives, lovers and political ideals.
When the tunnel builders ran out of money after only a few meters of digging, they came up with the idea of marketing the story of the escape tunnel. They sell the exclusive film rights to NBC, the American television network. And so, for the first time in film history, a camera crew is embedded in the plans for people to escape under the Berlin Wall. These images are eventually seen around the world a few days after the world stopped holding its breath during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The story was first told in the award-winning documentary film „DER TUNNEL“ for ARD in 1999. Today, 20 years later, the film has been remade colorizing the original archive, transferred to HD, in 16/9 format, with the addition of new interviews. The story and the spectacular NBC footage, which was salvaged from the attic of one of the tunnel builders, have lost nothing of their explosive and unique qualities.
The two Italians, Mimmo and Gigi, who at the time dug the tunnel for their friend Peter Schmidt and later closed the deal with NBC, have already died. But some of the tunnel builders (now 85) are still alive. Among them, Inge and Klaus Stürmer. For the first time, the couple talk to each other about a topic that they have never discussed since they were reunited. During an escape attempt at the end of 1961 they were separated, he was suddenly in the West, while she was pregnant and with their first child was imprisoned in the East. Why didn‘t she run with him when he knocked down the border guard and pushed through the wire mesh fence to the West? She was supposed to stay close behind him with the children because it was known that the East German Police would not shoot at a pregnant woman with a child.
When Inge is released after months of imprisonment, Klaus Stürmer plans to build a tunnel for his wife, but learns about across the tunnel of the two Italians. Since the tunnel builders suspect him of being an informer, they keep him working double shifts in the tunnel until the successful breakthrough on September 14, 1962. On that day he is rewarded for his daring and finally embraces his daughter Kirsten and his son Uwe, born in the GDR prison, in an emotional scene. Their reunion goes around the world when the film is broadcast by NBC on December 10, 1962, to an audience of millions.
This story forms the framework for a film that combines the great political tension of the Cold War with the emotionally charged biographies of the tunnelers and escapees.
For the first time, Inge and Klaus Stürmer talk about the day of their joint attempt to escape, because despite their deep love, each secretly thought they had been abandoned by the other. And so Klaus learns that his wife was in the process of disposing of the bolt cutter when he decided to suddenly run away.
TUNNEL TO FREEDOM is a story of the daring of young people, about trust and solidarity, about overcoming walls, and the human drive to be free.
The spectacular NBC footage, shot on 16mm film at the time, forms the visual heart of the film. It has been scanned on 2K and reconstructed in lifelike color with the help of AI and an elaborate restoration process. What used to be black and white material in the past suddenly takes on a frightening closeness and brings the story into the present. The themes of walls built to contain and/or repel, as well as solidarity and compassion can hardly be more topical in view of the refugee crises in today‘s world.
Together with a new soundtrack (music and sound design), the film directed by Marcus Vetter is a completely new viewing and listening experience. The audio story of Tunnel 29, aired on BBC Radio in 2018 and was their most successful podcast to date. In August 2021 BERLIN – TUNNEL TO FREEDOM aired on ARD 1 and ARTE, receiving outstanding reviews.
– Daily Geek Show –
“eloquent archival images…oh so moving”
– Moustique –
“An odyssey rich in testimonies and archives”
– Coulisses.TV –
“…spectacular NBC footage…transports the viewer”
– Der Spiegel –
– Westdeutsche Allgemeine –
“As exciting as a thriller…one of the most adventurous escapes from the GDR”
– Frankfurter Rundschau –
“Vetter presents a chapter of German history humanly, vividly, with heart and mind, that is simply exemplary.”
– Westdeutsche Allgemeine –
Young student PETER SCHMIDT, is the starting point of what became known as „Operation Travel Agency“. He was living with his childhood love and first wife EVELYN and daughter ANNETTE on the eastern 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 to the East. His Italian friends and fellow students LUIGI SPINA aka „GIGI“ and DOMENICO SESTA aka „MIMMO“ recognize the deteriorating condition of their friend during a visit to the East, who – to make matters worse – is about to be called into military service. 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.“
They naïvely throw themselves into building an escape tunnel. But as art students, they have little understanding of how to construct a tunnel, so they turn to their fellow students from the neighboring technical university and find two important partners: HASSO HERSCHEL and civil engineer ULI PFEIFFER. Both had only recently escaped East Berlin into the West. Their adventurous and risky venture begins, despite their lack of awareness of the political implications.
After digging about 20 meters, the tunnel builders have already run out of money and realize they can‘t proceed without more equipment. Unbeknownst to the others, the two Italians try to sell the film rights and reach a deal with the American network NBC, allowing them to film their clandestine work in exchange for money. NBC‘s black-and-white recordings are a unique contemporary historical document and part of the story told here.
First, a suitable location for the escape tunnel had to be found. Since the groundwater in Berlin is very high, only an elevated area close to the wall could be considered. The area around Prenzlauer Berg seems ideal for the project – it is about 150 meters above sea level. The street „Bernauerstrasse“ runs parallel to the west side of the wall for several kilometers. On this street they discover an abandoned porcelain factory which seemed the perfect place for the operation. Inside the empty building they would be able to conceal the huge amounts of earth that would be produced during the excavation work. They tell the owner 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 silent because he shares their resentment of the GDR for his own 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 areas. There they seek friendship with a Bulgarian who has an apartment at number 66. During a party at the Bulgarian‘s flat MIMMI secretly explores the cellar of the building to find a suitable point for the exit of the escape tunnel. According to the calculations, the tunnel must be 166 meters long from cellar to cellar. Such an undertaking cannot be accomplished without money.
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. They will get Mrs. Schmidt‘s signature on a faded piece of grease-proof paper, wrap the document in a cigarette case and smuggle it across the sector border. In case of an inspection, it was agreed to smoke the document. They do this without being discovered. A short time later they have the starting capital for their operation.
„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.“
Now more students of the technical university are being initiated into their plan. Each one of them had to be background checked and must maintain the utmost secrecy. The people, materials, and equipment must remain unnoticed, day after day and night after night, in the basement of the old factory building. The watchful eyes of the GDR border guards focus on every movement on the other side of the wall. In order to handle the team movement logistics with less attention, they get a VW van to limit the number of vehicles outside the building. On May 9, 1962 the time had come. The excavation work begins.
The completion of the tunnel is scheduled for August 12, 1962. The parents of a friend own a construction company and give them some building materials. But after 25 meters they have to give up. They had not planned for the lack of oxygen. From a factory in West Berlin, they get a ventilation fan with hoses. They are lucky. The owner gives them the valuable piece without asking questions.
But they soon need more wood, steel and concrete than can be financed with the initial capital. The quantities are much greater than they had anticipated. For a second time it seems they will 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 Studios. This film describes the fate of the refugees who escaped through a tunnel on January 24th of the same year, under the street „Oranienburg Chaussee“. GIGI and MIMMI make the film production company a proposal to shoot parts of the feature film at the factory location instead of the studio, in exchange for additional finance.
However, Fritjof Meyer, press spokesman for UFA, refuses. It is too risky for them to shoot with a feature film team in the real tunnel. He fears that the GDR border police could discover the tunnel through the array of people and technology. However, on behalf of the two Italians he makes contact with the American network NBC. An executive from NBC, Gary Stindt, looks at the work done so far, inspects the planned exit on the other end of the tunnel, and agrees to document and finance the operation. In return, an advance payment of 60,000 West German Marks and the German-language rights to the footage are negotiated. The two Italians are keeping this deal secret from HASSO HERSCHEL and many of the other tunnel builders for the time being. So the shooting is planned in a way that filming will always be done during 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…”
The end of the tunnel is now directly under the wall. They have reached the GDR border area. But then a water pipe on the West Berlin side bursts. Large parts of the tunnel are flooded.
Some of the money from NBC is used to buy equipment 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 has not yet been noticed by the West Berlin authorities. But the tunnel builders have to quietly notify someone at the water company to solve the problem without blowing the operation. They bring the manager of the water company into their confidence and soon after, the defective pipe is shut down. Now they have to wait for the soil to dry.
A little later Egon Bahr, press spokesman for Willi Brandt, at the time governing Mayor of West Berlin (later Chancellor), summons GIGI and MIMMI to the town hall. The manager of the water company had not kept quiet. Bahr makes it unmistakably clear to the two Italians that if a film about an escape tunnel were to be made, and he learns this, the two Italians would have to leave Berlin. Spina and Sesta are wrapped in silence.
They are contacted by the German Federal Intelligence Service („Verfassungsschutz“) and required to appear for a secret meeting in West Berlin. Two agents in trench coats come to the meeting, but refuse to reveal their identity. The tunnel builders then suggest they have their identity cards confirmed at a police station. The agents respond to this suggestion and are confirmed as „clean“. From now on, the West German Secret Service is also involved in „Operation Travel Agency“. Another meeting follows with a limping intelligence colonel in another part of Berlin. They have to provide to him all the names involved in the operation. For their own safety, the colonel promises to have the names checked. He confirms none of them are GDR informers. The construction of the escape tunnel can continue.
More than two months have passed since „Operation Travel Agency“ began. The clay soil is nearly dry and they are now directly under the death strip of the Berlin Wall. Meanwhile, intelligence units of the GDR have discovered other escape tunnels and arrested many collaborators.
The work is getting riskier every day. One day a man calling himself „Butcher“ contacts the tunnel builders. He is digging a short tunnel in „Neukölln“, which is already completed. He makes an offer to get their „people“ through his tunnel as well. The troupe remains skeptical, but leaves it up to their friends in the GDR to decide whether they want to take up the offer. Those who decide to take the chance are brought to the exit point. On the side streets they notice trucks and black limousines parked conspicuously. The escape action is aborted and the tunnel is discovered the same day. Butcher‘s team is arrested but Butcher gets away. Today we know the group was infiltrated by the „Stasi“, the state security service of the GDR. The Stasi archives refer to reports by Kurt Siegfried Uhse, who later escaped to Thailand.
Time is passing quickly and the operation is becoming more and more dangerous. GIGI, MIMMO and HASSO change their plan. They research another exit – one street closer – in a cellar at „Schönholzerstraße 7“, but keep this secret even from their own people. They calculate the excavation work so that the tunnel passes directly under their new target cellar, but continue to dig in the old direction.
On September 14, 1962 after four months and five days of digging, a month later than originally planned, they arrive at the moment they‘ve been working towards. The cellar in the Schönholzerstrasse 7 will be broken through. None of the escapees in the East know how and where the escape will take place. For the tunnel builders, the anxious question now arises: Are their calculations correct? Where will the tunnel emerge?
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 of the escape plans through 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 becomes MIMMI‘s wife. She is the only one – apart from the Italians who may already be under scrutiny – who can legally enter the GDR for 24 hours. From a spot in Prenzlauer Berg she has a perfect viewpoint to a residential building in the West. From there, the tunnel builders observe every movement on 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 pub after the other to give the agreed signs. She immediately recognizes the people waiting to flee.
Everyone is wearing their best clothes. One is even in his communion suit. With close attention these people watch her every movement, looking for the agreed signal. 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. Will 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 understood. Three minutes later some guests leave the pub, they are among the hopeful escapees. At intervals of one hour she visits one pub after another. The machinery of escape is set in motion. After she has left the last pub, she hails a taxi traveling 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. The escapees are on their way to the tunnel. Hopefully, nothing will go wrong.
The friends in the GDR pass by Schönholzerstraße 7 in groups of two and three and quietly recite verses from a song called „Panzerkreuzer Potjemkin“ as a password. One group after the other opens the door. They are led down the cellar stairs. There is a small hole in the floor. They must raise their arms and let themselves fall. In the tunnel two helpers are waiting to show them the way. In this way, 29 people are able to escape before the tunnel becomes impassable due to another water line break. Among the rescued are HASSO‘S FAMILY, 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 amount of starting money, which the tunnel builders pay from what is left from the NBC advance. In the apartment there are clotheslines for the refugees‘ wet and muddy clothes. But the clotheslines are not hung with clothes, but with money. It‘s the money of the Schmidt family, who had sold their pretty little house In the East shortly before going 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 at a glittering reception by NBC. It is also the tragic turning point for Peter Schmidt, whose wife Evelyn has fallen in love with one of the tunnel builders and leaves him. 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.
Broadcast of the film made by NBC was scheduled for September 1962 but is postponed under diplomatic pressure from the Kennedy White House via the US State Department. Such a film being shown in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis could have jeopardized negotiations. Months later in December 1962 the film was finally broadcast on NBC and in over 30 countries around the world. In the US alone, 30 million Americans saw the story of Tunnel 29. For West Berlin and West Germany it was a unique public relations campaign. The dramatic live capture of this extraordinary escape made an indelible impact on future media coverage, the development of new TV formats, and the creative development of documentary film.
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 could only stand idly by in the East, watching his friends making slow progress despite a broken water pipe, money problems, and surveillance. PETER is at the intersection of many of the key relationships in this story.
East Berlin, 1955: The student HASSO HERSCHEL is arrested for possession of political pamphlets and sentenced to five years in prison. He is sent to „Schwarze Pumpe“ – part of the notorious Bautzen prison which becomes famous for its brutality. After his release he meets his friend and future fellow tunnel builder Uli Pfeifer. They both fled to the West while they could. Hasso has to leave his sister behind but promises to get her and her child as quickly as possible. He begins studying at the technical university in West Berlin, where he learns about the plans of the Italian Spina on campus. He joins 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 managed to escape from the East through a Berlin subway tunnel. His girlfriend of many years was to follow one day later. But she is arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison. ULI‘s world is collapsing. Through HASSO HERSCHEL, the newly graduated civil engineer learns about the Italian plan. His exacting measurement data and calculations for 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. Barbed wire divides the city. In 1961 LUIGI SPINA starts studying at the art and design university 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 and studied in the West, because the construction of the wall has blocked his 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 Dominico Sesta, a high school graduate from Puglia, also slides. Dominico, 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.
|Year of Production||2020|
|A Production of:||Filmperspektive|
|in coproduction with||SWR, ARTE|
|Edited and directed by||Marcus Vetter|
|Director of Photography||Jörg Widmer|
|Footage colorization||Marcela Rossilini|
|Art Director||Michele Gentile|
|Commissioning Editors||Gudrun Hanke El-Ghomri, SWR|
Simone Reuter, SWR
Peter Gottschalk, ARTE
|Worldsales||Louise Rosem Ltd.|
|Shooting:||Juli – September 2020|
|Format:||HD/Dolby Digital / 1:1.85|