„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 –
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 and civil engineer ULI PFEIFFER. Both had only recently escaped 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.
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 along the west side of the wall for several kilometers. In this street they discovered an old porcelain factory which seemed 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 areas. 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 not 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. 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. 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.
„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. 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.
But soon wood, steel and concrete are no longer be able to be financed with the initial 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 finance 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.
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 of 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 digging 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 skeptical, but leaves it to their friends in the GDR to decide for themselves whether they want to take up the offer. One 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.
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 any longer.
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.
|Year of production||1999 / 2020|
|A production of||Filmperspektive|
|In coproduction with||addictivefilm|
|writer & director||Renate Nebe|
|Director of photography||Christoph Lerch|
|Assistant Director||Achim Johne|
|Sound mix||Wolfgang Ort|
|Camera assistance||Thomas Frischhut|
|Camera assistance||Öle Jürgens|
|Assistant editor||Torsten Pietsch|
|Props|| Ralf Becker|
|Recording Management||Michael Becker|
|Production management||Gerhard Hoffmann|
|Commissioning editor||Julia Gerdes|