The Tunnel


(5/10) An American engineer masterminds a Transatlantic tunnel in this German 1933 production, based on Bernhard Kellermann’s 1913 novel. Made in the spirit of international unity, it is today often seen through the lens of the Nazi rise to power. While well acted and sporting impressive set design, the film’s pacing is off and the first half is bogged down by sluggish melodrama. 

The Tunnel (Der Tunnel). 1933, Germany. Directed by Kurt Bernhardt. Written by Kurt Bernhardt, Reinhart Steinbicker, Henry Koster. Based on novel by Bernhard Kellermann. Starring: Paul Hartmann, Attila Hörbinger, Olly von Flint, Gustaf Gründgens, Max Schreck. Cinematography: Carl Hoffmann. Music: Walter Gronostay. Produced by Ernst Garden for Bavaria Film. IMDb score: 6.2/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A. 



Der Tunnel (The Tunnel) is a curious project in a few ways. Firstly it is one of the films of the early thirties that were made into multilingual versions, using the same sets and script, and often the same director, but different actors (see F.P.1. Does Not Answer, 1932, review). This 1933 film was made as a German and a French version. A British remake was done in 1935. The film had previously been made in Germany as a silent movie in 1915 (and allegedly one in 1914 as well, according to some sources). The 1915 version was unearthed and restored in 2010, and has been screened to some select audiences, and according to those who have seen it, it was something of a masterpiece. 

The Tunnel is based on the novel of the same name by Bernhard Kellermann, written in 1913. Both the book and the film concern engineer Mac Allan, who leads a project for building a Transatlantic tunnel between Europe and America. The book was written at a time of technological optimism, when aeronautics was still only in its very early infancy, and mass aviation across the Atlantic was still regarded as far-off science fiction. But with the rapid advances in mining and construction technology, it didn’t seem like an impossible notion to dig a great tunnel between the continents. Secondly, The Tunnel was written before the rise of communism in Russia and before World War I – a time when we were still talking about international brotherhood and unification.


Paul Hartmann as Mac Allan.

There are some major differences between book and film, but overall the screenplay stays fairly true to the source material. I’ll discuss the novel further on, but first, let’s have a look at the film. I haven’t been able to find a version with English subtitles, and my high school German is admittedly a bit rusty, but having read the novel, I was able to follow the proceedings fairly well, even if I couldn’t make out all the dialogue.

Set in a time period between 1940 and 1955, the story basically follows the construction of a Transatlantic tunnel, and especially the life and trials of the mastermind behind it. Engineer Mac Allan (Paul Hartmann) presents his idea for a Transatlantic tunnel to a crowd of potential backers, who are sceptical. He does, however, get the funding, much of it from the shady (Jewish) businessman Woolf (Gustaf Gründgens), and construction begins. Much of the beginning of the film is spent on setting up a social context for Allan, dealing with family matters (his wife, played by Olly von Flint), his friend Hobby the explosives expert (Attila Hörbinger) and various slow-moving meetings with backers and press. We see him going on publicity tours and visiting the workers as the digging goes on. Things start speeding up after a terrible accident. The tunnel floods, causing the deaths of dozens of workers. The backers on top lose faith, and the devious Woolf has put all his money on the hope that the project fails, which would make him a fortune on the stock market. After the accident he sends an agitator to infiltrate the workers, trying to get them to abandon the project. But Mac Allan wins them back with a fiery speech. Woolf then sends a saboteur to the tunnel, again causing problems, and Allan is on the verge of giving up, but is convinced to continue by Hobby. Eventually the German team meats up with the American team in the middle of the Atlantic, and in a scene with dramatic ending music they embrace as brothers, uniting Europe and USA.


Jean Gabin as Mac Allan and Madeleine Renaud as his wife in the French version of the movie.

The good part of the film is that it is well acted – especially Paul Hartmann as Mac Allan gives a dramatic and solid performance. Hartmann had previously played the inventor of the floating airplane platform in the Atlantic in the German sci-fi F.P.1. Does Not AnswerGustaf Gründgens – going by the artist name Gustaf, much like Karloff, is brilliantly oily as Woolf, even if the implied antisemitism of the role — and the fact that Gründgens was a devoted . The production values are good, especially impressive are the scenes in the vast but still unnervingly claustrophobic tunnel.

Unfortunately the bad parts outweigh the good. First of all the logic of the film is ridiculous. Despite the impossibility of the task, digging a tunnel between the continents might have seemed like a good idea in 1913. But in 1933 planes were already crossing the Atlantic. Even if there still wasn’t any regular passenger flights, many people already saw the notion as a possibility in a near future. Building a tunnel would have been a humongous waste of money and resources. And even if the tunnel shots are great, the film doesn’t score any points for futurism – as opposed to the British 1935 film that is a vastly more interesting movie visually.



But the real problem with the movie is the script. It starts off slow and doesn’t get to the main conflict between Woolf and Mac Allan until the middle of the film. The first half is divided between the rather dull descriptions of pedestrian work on the tunnel, and the rather pointless story of the failing marriage between Mac Allan and his wife Mary (Olly Flint). There are long sequences describing Mary’s discontent at Allan spending all his time on the job and forgetting about her. But this conflict just ebbs out during the film, and bears no real relevance. I may have lost something in translation here, but omitting the brutal killing of Allan’s wife and daughter, present in the book, renders the melodrama rather superfluous.

But to be fair: much of what makes the film problematic stems from the book. Like the film it has an episodic feel without a central conflict or story arc, other than the building of the tunnel. The film chooses to focus on the conflict between Woolf and Mac Allan, and still it feels almost like an aside. In the novel, it is an aside, merely present for author Bernhard Kellermann to vent his antisemitism. Like the film, the book spends too much time jogging itself into the story, setting up characters and background. Kellermann sets up characters arcs, but isn’t quite able to complete them in a satisfying way, so they’re left hanging, with the exception of Mac Allan’s wife, whose arc comes to an abrupt and gruesome end, as angry workers attack and kill her after the accident in the tunnel.


Ferdinand Marian as the antagonist.

However, The Tunnel is a difficult book to appraise, because it is very ambiguous about its hero Mac Allan, the great American capitalist hero: the wonderboy engineer, and about his industrial marvel, the Transatlantic tunnel. The tunnel is given far less universal symbolism than in the film — if indeed any at all. In the book, the tunnel is primarily regarded as a hydra for Mac Allan to slay: little emphasis is put on its symbolic value for unification and internationalisation, and for a book about capitalism and industrialism, it focuses very little on its practical or economical value, other than how the building of it affects stock markets. And perhaps this is the point: one can read The Tunnel as a poignant comment on runaway capitalism. On the other hand, others have interpreted it, reversely, as a techno-optimistic fable of the future. But, again, the book turns ambiguous in the end. In a dramatic final chapter, Mac Allan finally gets his tunnel dug after all, and sets out to outrace the new Transatlantic flights with his Transatlantic train. His train loses, proving that despite all the years of work, the billions of dollars invested, the loss of thousands of workers’ lives, the death of his wife and daughter, the tunnel has become obsolete even at the moment it is completed.


Author Bernhard Kellermmann.

There are, as a said a few major differences between book and film. The first is the fact that the film takes on a much more internationalist stance: in the movie, European and American teams dig from bot sides of the Atlantic, meeting in the middle. In the novel, it’s just the US digging. Perhaps the most important change is that the film gives a voice to the workers toiling underground, even creating a secondary protagonist from the working class. In Kellermann’s book, the only time we see the depths of the Earth is when one of our upper class protagonists enter the tunnel: the workers, in general, are portrayed as filthy, brutal Untermenschen. Furthermore, Kellermann’s description of the workers take on a racist slant that is impossible to ignore today, but which was wholly glanced over when it was released. The mob of working-class women who kill Mac Allan’s wife and child in revenge for the death of their husbands are identified as Italian, during a protest when one of the main characters is riding her car through a throng, the protesting workers are described as “revolting”, “filthy” and “barbaric”. The woman in the car laughs at the Asian migrant workers, calling them “little yellow monkeys”, and the situation becomes especially threatening as she encounters a group of black workers. At another point there is a black worker who’s wounded in the terrible accident in the tunnel, who is also portrayed in a very bad light. The one exception that Kellermann makes is in his portrayal of a loyal and moral Japanese mechanic (in itself a culturally racist stereotype) — this likely stemmed from his own fascination for Japan: prior to writing The Tunnel he had visited Japan and written two travelogues about the country. The worst part of the racism in the book is the way that Jews in general, and the dirty businessman Wolf in particular, is portrayed. I had to skip some parts of the novel, which were in it for no other reason than for its antisemitic content.


From the press kit.

It’s fiendishly difficult to get a grasp on the novel’s intentions. On the one hand, it can be seen as a celebration of an almost aynrandian superman, a man who believes in his own superiority and his ideas, and stops at nothing in order to realise them, constantly fighting off “the great unwashed” who either fail to understand his vision, or try to sabotage him for their own gain. On the other hand, one can see it as a critique of a man possessed by an idea, the American capitalist entrepreneur who cares little for the consequences that fulfilling his ambitions at whatever cost will have for other people. And I think part of what makes the novel compelling is that Kellermann doesn’t clearly state which of these, if any, is the intended perspective. And depending on which interpretation you make, it opens up for a plethora of other ways make a critical analysis the text, for example in the light of Marxism, capitalism, feminism, Freudianism, geography or history. And while Kellermann’s acerbic depictions of the immigrant workers does invoke an elitist reading, the author still doesn’t lack sympathy for the plight of the labourers. This is clear from the way that he depicts the horrendous circumstances in the tunnel, the gruelling work and the detailed horror of the aftermath of the explosion. It’s obvious that Kellermann understands the workers’ impulse to react by lashing out at Mac Allan — however, manner in which he describes this outlash doesn’t paint a pretty picture of the workers. But on the other hand, Mac Allan’s somewhat cold response to the plight of the workers, and his commitment to fulfil the project even at the risk of further thousands of deaths, can also be read as a rather unsympathetic portrayal.

So what is clear is that when screenwriters Kurt Bernhardt, Reinhart Steinbicker and Henry Koster (who still went by the name Herman Kosterlitz) took on the project, much depended on how they interpreted, or chose to interpret, the source novel. Of course, this being the early years of Nazi Germany, much of the analysis of the film has focused on its relation to national socialism and fascism. And while it can certainly be fruitful to analyse a film in relation to its surrounding society, there’s also a tendency, especially in retrospect, to read too much into them.


Paul Hartmann (left).

We love to view basically everything done or made in Germany during the inter-war period in the light of Nazism, in the way we love to view everything done or made in Eastern Europe during most of the 20th century in the light of communism. But the political system under which you live is not the entirety of your world, nor does it to greatly inform all art and culture made under it, even if it always does to some degree. Many people are, for example, surprised to find out that Joseph Stalin’s favourite film genres were American westerns and jazz comedies. He adored John Wayne.

Subsequently there were a lot of musical comedies made during the Stalin years. Most of them had rather little to do with communism, other than the fact that they were set in a communist country. The same thing was true for Nazi Germany. Hitler also loved the movies. But neither he nor the rest of the country didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives looking at propaganda films glorifying the Third Reich. Hitler, like most movie-goers also wanted to see adventure, romance, comedy and historical epics. And while large portions of Germany’s and Austria’s film industry fled abroad after Hitler’s rise to power, there were many who stayed who didn’t necessarily support Nazism, but neither were alarmed enough by it to leave. The Tunnel’s director Kurt Bernhardt was Jewish and did leave, in fact he had already left for France, where he filmed the French version of the movie. He did, however, get special permission by the Nazis to return to Munich and direct the German version of the film, despite being a Jew. But what I’m trying to get at here is that films made during the Nazi era in Germany don’t necessarily have to be seen as comments on or in relation to Nazism.


Gustaf Gründgens.

Case in point: Gustaf Gründgens’ portrayal of Woolf in the film has been accused of being antisemitic. But if you go back and watch it, there’s actually nothing in the film to suggest that Woolf is even Jewish, apart from the fact that Woolf is a common Jewish name. In fact the casting of the tall, handsome, “Aryan-looking” Gründgens in the role seems to purposely subvert the book’s antisemitic stereotyped image of Woolf as a short, swarthy, plump, crooked-nosed, fidgety Jew.

Of course, Woolf is the most egregiously antisemitic character of the book, so one can argue that all that Bernhardt does is simply wash his hands over the matter. But I have also seen a number of articles making elaborate arguments about the film’s either fascist or anti-fascist ideology, depending on who you ask. Wulf Koepke, for example, argues in his book  that the structure of the film’s narrative is fascistic: “It consecrates the advent of a unified public sphere whose function is to engineer consent from above, not to express critique from below”. I’m not even quite sure what this means, but this sort of meta-argument about a film’s structure is so wide and unspecific, that it can apply to almost any movie you choose to apply it on.


The tunnel.

Of course, when you are dealing with a film that does not expressively discuss politics and ideology, you are stuck with interpretations. And when interpreting a film involving themes like workers vs the elite, international cooperation, progress and industrialism, made in a place and time of great political turmoil, political analyses will naturally be made, and rightly so. And since we are talking about interpretations, one can argue that there is no right or wrong way to interpret a film. Your interpretation is as valid to your experience of the film as mine is to my experience of the film. A Marxist critique of a film can be interesting, and indeed revealing, as it can, for example, lay bare social and intellectual trends during the time and place the film was made, as well as say something about the underlying ideological bias of the people making it. However, such analysis also often becomes very academic and speculative, reading heavy symbolism and intent into content that was created without much thought of even by accident. And while not all agree, I do think that something must also be said about the intent of the filmmaker — this can of course be difficult, as the story originator, screenwriter, director, editor and producer will probably all have slightly different, sometimes even opposing, intents and interpretations. And director Kurt Bernhardt later vehemently denied that The Tunnel was a comment on Nazism, one way or the other.


From the press kit.

Hitler is said to have liked the film, but he liked many films, and not all of them for ideological reasons. This is also a mistake people do: When they read that Hitler or Goebbels like a certain film, they immediately jump to the conclusion that the film somehow expresses a Nazi sentiment. Now, I’m a pretty outspoken leftist, but I still love a number of movies that are explicitly anti-leftist. I love seeing Arnold and Sly blow up commies. The reason Hitler liked The Tunnel was in fact not its ideology, but the way in which it depicted the power of rhetoric. In one of the most famous scenes of the movie, two workers (one of them being the capitalist infiltrator) have a dramatic rhetorical stand-off in the tunnel, and it’s easy to see how this sequence would have appealed to Hitler, who would use emotional and dramatic speeches to such impressive effect during his career. It is said that after seeing the film, he would hardly talk about anything but the power of the spoken word for days.


Ferdinand Marian as the antagonist.

So what does the ideology of The Tunnel boil down to to? Like the book, I’d say it is ambiguous. Bernhardt later said that the the internationalist sentiment was meant in earnest, and I think that more than anything it espouses the same kind of (perhaps naive) non-ideological view of the conflict between workers and the the capital, that heart and compassion should prevail over political ideologies, and that through understanding and cooperation we can all be friends. Of course, when one starts to dissect this view, it comes with assumptions and blind spots that are connected to both ideology and understanding of the reality of politics and the world, but so do all world-views, particularly when expressed through the simplified medium of a narrative film.

Jewish director Kurt Bernhardt would soon flee to the States, reinventing himself in Hollywood as Curtis Bernhardt In USA Bernhardt had a fairly successful career, directing some so-called ”women’s films” including the Joan Crawford film Possessed (1947).


Director Kurt (Curtis) Bernhardt (second from left) celebrating his birthday in Hollywood with the stars of Miss Sadie Thompson: Aldo Ray, Rita Hayworth and José Ferrer.

Out of the cast one notices of course Paul Hartmann, as well as Gustaf Gründgens. Gründgens was a celebrated stage actor, director and artistic director of some of Berlin’s most prestigious theatre houses. He had an ambivalent relationship with the Nazi regime. He didn’t endorse the Nazis, but nonetheless stayed in Germany and continued to work during the Second World War. He did at one point ask to be relieved of his post as artistic director, partly because of his homosexuality. This happened shortly after the known homosexual Nazi leader Ernst Röhm had been ousted by Hitler and his lackeys in the so-called Röhm putsch of 1934. The propaganda minister Hermann Göring refused to fire him – Göring would continue to be a stout supporter of  Gründgens throughout the Nazi regime, even after a scandalous performance of Hamlet in 1936, that Nazi ideologists attacked for ”emphasizing the tragedy of lonely intellectuals in the midst of a criminal state”, putting extra weight behind lines like ”Denmark is a prison” and ”Time is out of joint”. After the war  Gründgens was briefly put in jail, but thanks to a strong support from the artistic community, he was quickly rehabilitated and returned to stage as soon as 1946. Der Tunnel remains his only sci-fi film.


Jean Gabin with his high-tech plan of the tunnel.

Gründgens was the only one of the starring actors to appear in both the German and the French version of the film. Mac Allan was played by Jean Gabin in the French version. Gabin was a prized actor, mostly known for playing nasty characters – he is best remembered as inspector Maigret. Director Sergio Leone said Gabin was his favourite actor.

In a supporting role we see Max Schreck, who rose to fame that has achieved mythological proportions with his portrayal of Graf Orlok – or Dracula – in the 1922 masterpiece NosferatuSchreck died suddenly in 1936, only 56 years old. He was immortalized by Willem Dafoe in the surrealistic fictional portrayal of the making of Nosferatu, Shadow of a Vampire, in 2000.

Most of the other supporting actors were less known working actors, and many of them stayed in Germany and worked within the Nazi system, which meant their careers were more or less over by the end of WWII, as Nazi collaborators were smoked out of the arts. Director of photography Carl Hoffmann was one of the most noted cameramen in the silent era of German film, beside Karl Freund, and worked for Fritz Lang on films like Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922), Die Nibelungen (1924) and Faust (1926). He also filmed the 1920 (unauthorized) version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Der Januskopf, for F.W. Murnau. Unlike Freund, he remained in Germany during the war, and worked within the Nazi system.


Book covers.

The novel The Tunnel was a huge success when it was released. It was translated into 25 languages and sold over a million copies internationally. Despite its racist sentiments it is still considered a classic of German science fiction. Author Bernhard Kellermann did never officially embrace Nazism, despite his antisemitic views. In fact his 1920 novel Der 9. November (“The 9th of November”) was banned and burned by the Nazis because of its criticism of the brutality of officers and soldiers of the German army toward civilians in WWI. During the Nazi regime Kellermann was otherwise left undisturbed, and wrote mainly dime novels. After the war he settled in communist East Germany, where he became active in politics, and was even elected to parliament, which led to his books being withdrawn from book stores in West Germany.

The film The Tunnel is an uneven affair, slow to get going and, in my opinion, hampered by the emphasis on the spy/sabotage plot, which even at the time was unoriginal. The novel lacks a clear antagonist/protagonist conflict: Woolf is more a nuisance than a threat, and it is understandable that the screenwriters wanted a more clear-cut villain, but it also makes the film formulaic. The romantic melodrama is dull, and overall the movie feels splintered and episodic. It has moments of great dramatic strength, and the visuals and designs are very impressive.

Janne Wass 

The Tunnel (Der Tunnel). 1933, Germany. Directed by Kurt Bernhardt. Written by Kurt Bernhardt, Reinhart Steinbicker, Henry Koster. Based on the novel by Bernhard Kellermann. Starring: Paul Hartmann, Attila Hörbinger, Olly von Flint, Gustaf Gründgens, Max Schreck, Otto Wernicke, Max Weydner, Elga Brink, Richard Ryen. Cinematography: Carl Hoffmann. Editing: Gottlieb Madl. Production design: Heinz Fenchel, Max Seefelder, Karl Vollbrecht. Music: Walter Gronostay. Produced by Ernst Garden for Bavaria Film.

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    • A man who cannot see the truth in three bread crumbs is like a woodpecker playing ping-pong in a hardware store.


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