Escape From East Berlin (1962)

Two Masters of Hollywood Expressionism Go Back to Europe

Escape From East Berlin and War-Gods of the Deep both try to escape from tyranny.

Robert Siodmak and Jacques Tourneur were two masters of visual style who helped sculpt film noir and even made similar Burt Lancaster swashbucklers. Now on disc are one film each from the ’60s, the decade of their retirement. It happens that both movies are about escape from tyranny. The directors had been European imports, reminding us of how much Hollywood owed Hitler, but here they were working once again in Europe.

Hitler’s rise drove the Jewish Siodmak from a thriving German career and then an equally thriving French career in 1939. He thrived again with a series of noirs, mostly at Universal, then returned to Europe in the ’50s. Sadly, the majority of his films in all eras aren’t easily available, so it’s important that Escape from East Berlin (also known as Tunnel 28 ), shot in West Berlin for MGM, is now on demand from Warner Archive in a print that’s only decent.

This 1962 production was, as they say, ripped from the headlines, as it’s based on an incident that happened early that year when 28 people escaped through a tunnel under the Berlin Wall into West Berlin. Erwin Becker, a chauffeur who led the escape, was the film’s technical advisor.

The basic characterizations follow the Casablanca trope of the cynical, wheeling-and-dealing hero, Kurt (American actor Don Murray), who doesn’t want to stick his neck out for anybody but is persuaded to active resistance by love. Erika (Christine Kaufmann) isn’t so much a character as an embodiment of pure youthful optimism. Her type can be found in Soviet films, too, pitching in to the glorious workers’ state and upbraiding the cynical. She also has the impulsive thoughtlessness of youth, so it’s lucky that her beauty and innocence make everyone want to protect her at risk to themselves.

Working from a suspenseful true story, there’s no need to layer on the propaganda, but the script can’t resist a few moments like Erika’s pie-eyed speech about how the sun will shine on her day of freedom, since apparently sunlight is forbidden in the East. This night-filmed movie would certainly make you think so. There’s also the character of Erika’s father (Kurt Waitzmann), a professor upset that his wife’s church-going and unruly children will make him lose his job; he represents the implication that all the ordinary folk are trustworthy and sensible — but watch out for those intellectuals.

Siodmak’s eye remains remarkable. Working with the rich chiaroscuro of photographer Georg Krause, Siodmak presents one brilliantly composed shot after another of claustrophobic tension framed by a chaos of angles, holes, walls, wires, and lonely light bulbs. Quietly masterful bits of punctuation include the shot where Murray’s hand pans down to caress the nylon-covered foot of the boss’ wife, and the upside-down shot of Werner Klemperor’s face as his character inveigles his way into the family.

All this expressiveness is aided by Hans-Martin Majewski’s score, which doesn’t confine itself to suspense but uses many shades from the martial to the delicate. Krause, who shot Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, worked with Siodmak on his Oscar-nominated German serial-killer movie The Devil Strikes at Night and the melodrama Dorothea Angermann. It would be nice to see these in fine prints one day, along with most of the rest of Siodmak’s work.

Working at Berlin’s UFA Studios and real locations, he skillfully blends a large cast into a credible community, all played expertly by German actors with Murray as the only Hollywood import, and he’s convincingly German in a handsome-rebel way. Playing Kurt’s family are Ingrid van Bergen (restless hairdresser-sister), Bruno Fritz (friendly musician-uncle), Edith Schulze-Westrum (careworn widow-hausfrau) and Ronald Dehne (little brother who loves model airplanes). Van Bergen is well-known today in Germany, having gone to jail for shooting her lover and more recently appearing on a reality show.

Handsome Carl Schell (brother of Maximilian and Maria) plays Kurt’s military boss with a sexy wife (Kai Fischer, later co-starring in Wim Wenders’ The Goalie’s Anxiety of the Penalty). Helma Seitz plays Erika’s sad mother, while the doomed brother is an early role for popular actor Horst Janson, best known in English as the title role in Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter. The script is by Gabrielle Upton (known for soap operas and Gidget), Peter Berneis (Portrait of Jennie) and Millard Lampell, a songwriter and novelist who also wrote for movies and TV.

A Master’s Farewell

Frenchman Jacques Tourneur had spent his formative years in Hollywood with his father Maurice Tourneur, a master of pictorialism. They returned to France in the ’20s, but Jacques returned to Hollywood from the ’30s through the ’60s. His final film was War-Gods of the Deep, shot in England for American International. It doesn’t have a high reputation, and Chris Fujiwara shrugs it off in his book Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall. It may get a well-deserved second or third look thanks to the spectacular image on Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray.

War-Gods of the Deep (British title: City Under the Sea) was the last of Vincent Price’s string of AIP films more or less inspired (in this case less) by Edgar Allan Poe. These had all been directed by Roger Corman, but Tourneur had recently directed Price in AIP’s The Comedy of Terrors (another shrug-off) and was apparently happy to accept this final assignment. Although War-Gods claims to be based on a Poe poem quoted in the film, the story’s a rehash of Jules Verne adventures popular in movies at the time, including yet another Price AIP film, Master of the World.

In 1903 Cornwall, an American geologist (Tab Hunter) and an eccentric English artist (David Tomlinson) with a pet chicken (“She’s called Herbert” — presumably inspired by the goose in the film of Journey to the Center of the Earth) stumble into an underground city ruled by doom-laden megalomaniac Sir Hugh (Price), who knows the place is about to be destroyed by an underwater volcano.

Vincent Price in War-Gods of the Deep (1965)

Something about “the actinic rays” have kept this former smuggler and his men alive for a century. They can emerge at night for supplies but otherwise they’ll shrivel like residents of Shangri-La if they leave. It’s never clear why they all chose to stay a hundred years ago, nor the batty minister (John Le Mesurier) who wandered in 60 years ago. Surely it’s not a sentimental attachment to Sir Hugh, who enforces order among his handful of acolytes by periodically cutting out their tongues or sacrificing them at the behest of the city’s mutated Gill-men. Maybe they adore their dictator; it wouldn’t be the first time.

Our heroes rescue a lass (Susan Hart) who’d shamelessly flirted with Hunter’s character before being kidnapped by Gill-men because she reminds Sir Hugh of his dead wife, whose portrait hangs nearby. Yes, it’s another of what Price called his “dead wife” movies, and this is the clearest thematic link to the previous Poe items. Sir Hugh’s entry is delayed a long time, and then he mostly struts around like a despotic aristocrat barking lines like “I’ll ask the questions!” It’s not a florid performance by Price but rather dampened by the barometric atmosphere.

Scripted by Charles Bennett and revised with “comedy” by Louis M. Heyward, the story is unimportant Saturday matinee nonsense, anemically developed. What matters is that this newly remastered Blu-ray shows off Tourneur’s eye-popping visual sense, and what a difference a great print makes. This transfer is gorgeous, with an obvious difference in grain and clarity during brief inserts from the Japanese movie Atragon, so blurry as to give the impression we’re watching 3D footage without glasses.

With cinematographer Stephen Dade (Zulu) and a design team probably supervised by producer Daniel Haller (a brilliant art director), Tourneur mixes colors and shadows into beautiful textures worthy of old-fashioned illustrations, especially in the caves and other underground scenes that dominate the picture. An early scene where the lights go out in a mansion must have been conceived just to show off this mastery of shadow, but the film also indulges in washes of color filters against cave walls in the manner of Mario Bava. If only the dialogue were as worth hearing as the imagery is worth seeing.

Actually, the endless and dull underwater “chase” at the climax isn’t worth seeing, and in fairness to Tourneur and Dade, we must point out that they didn’t handle that. The Blu-ray could have used a friendly, informative commentary track like most of the other Price/AIP Blu-rays from Kino Lorber, but the only extras are a trailer and a short interview with Hunter.

RATING 6 / 10