A romantic triangle story told against the backdrop of the building of the Simplon Tunnel at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, as workers battle the elements to build one of the longest railway tunnels in the world.
On January 24th, 1906, workers finished building the first Simplon Tunnel, which ran under the Lepontine Alps and connected Italy and Switzerland by rail. The tunnel runs from Domodossola, Italy to Brig, Switzerland. The second Simplon Tunnel was built fifteen years later and, until 1982, it was the longest railway tunnel in the world. As one might expect, the construction of the tunnel was not without its problems. The working conditions were horrendous. At one point, the drilling crew struck a hot spring that started pumping hot water into the tunnel at a rate of 1,500 gallons a minute. The temperature in the tunnel rose to 113º F (45º C). Management’s solution to this problem, at first, was to simply douse the workers with cold water before they entered the tunnel to work. When that didn’t work, they installed a refrigeration system. 67 workers were killed in accidents and many more died later of diseases.1 When the workers went on strike, the Swiss Army was sent in to quell the unrest. Even after the tunnel was finished, an engineer died due to the toxic gases escaping into the tunnel.
In spite of the setbacks, the tunnel captured the world’s imagination. In 1904, composer Luigi Constantino composed an opera about the building of the tunnel. Although the opera is forgotten today, The New York Times reported that the composer received fourteen curtain calls when it was first performed in Palermo. In modern popular culture, the tunnel is best remembered for being the location of the train fight between James Bond and SMERSH agent Donovan Grant in Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love.2
The drillers and miners striking for better working conditions at the tunnel caught the imagination of writer-director Gottfried Kolditz, whose film Simplon Tunnel (Simplon-Tunnel) combines the efforts of the German strikers with romantic entanglements and capitalist intrigue. The film starts when a group of Italians arrive to work on the tunnel, only to find that the German workers are on strike. The Italians want to work and aren’t willing to join to join the strike, which was exactly what the fat cats had hoped would happen. Leading the German strikers is Erich Haller (Otto Mellies), a ruggedly handsome guy for whom the cause is more important than anything, including his personal freedom. Leading the Italian group is Antonio Bertini (Horst Weinheimer), who is driven less by politics than by his lust for life and—at times—just plain lust. Into this environment strolls Rosa (Brigitte Krause), the daughter of Pietro Canali (Hans Finohr), an older Italian man who serves as the de facto mediator between the Italians and the Germans. Rosa has been dating Haller, but when the German is sent to jail, Bertini moves in on her. Bertini had been sleeping with Yvette (Christine Schwarze), a dancehall girl who travels from town to town, but Yvette isn’t particularly faithful and prefers money to love. When Yvette leaves the mining camp, Bertini turns his attentions to Rosa.
If this were a Hollywood film, Bertini would be viewed as the bad guy and would have been killed in a tunnel accident, freeing up Rosa to rejoin Haller. Of course, since this is a DEFA film, Haller and Bertini eventually realize that the financiers of the tunnel are their real enemies, not each other. The primary heavy in the film is Tassoni (Kurt Oligmüller), who acts as the lackey for the financiers and has the moral compass of a reptile.
Director Gottfried Kolditz is no stranger to this blog. He is one the most visually inventive of the East German directors in spite of spending much of his career making westerns (Indianerfilme) and kids’ movies (Kinderfilme). His films include Midnight Revue, Beloved White Mouse, and the psychedelic classic In the Dust of the Stars (for more on Kolditz, see Midnight Revue). Here, we have early Kolditz, which shows the work of a director who is still learning his craft. On many early DEFA films, directors took their cues from Soviet cinema, using the “socialist realist” template. Mostly, this means crotch-level shots of the workers standing shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, or rows of people marching and singing in triumph. There’s nothing remotely real about socialist realism and DEFA directors were quicker to abandon the style than their Soviet counterparts.
Much of the socialist evangelizing of Simplon Tunnel must be laid at the feet of Willi Brückner. Brückner worked as a dramaturge at DEFA starting in the mid-fifties and continuing until the early eighties. It was his job to make sure that the movies DEFA released had a message that was consistent with that of East Germany’s ruling party, the SED. His input on films varied, but on the films where he was the dramaturge, you’ll usually find a strong socialist message. Those films include Castles and Cottages, The Baldheaded Gang, and Close to the Wind. He was married to Margit Schaumäker, a former actress who also worked as a dramaturge and has the unique credit for being the first announcer on German television.3
With his resonant voice and Germanic good looks, Otto Mellies was a popular actor for roles that required someone with authority. He was born in Schlawe, Pomerania, which was part of Germany when he was born but is now Sławno, Poland. A few years later, the family moved to nearby Stolp (now Słupsk). He was fourteen when the Russians defeated the Nazis in Poland. Believing the stories about the Red Army that they had heard (not all of them unfounded, either) Mellies’s mother and sister committed suicide rather than face the Russians, His sister also killed her kids.4 Otto Mellies and his older brother Eberhard survived the end of the war as stable hands for the Red Army. They enrolled in the drama school in Schwerin in 1947 and Simplon Tunnel was Otto’s first starring role in a feature film. His DEFA films include Professor Mamlock, Minna von Barnhelm, Pension Boulanka and Driving School. After the Wende, he continued his career on TV and in movies. He also had a successful career reciting audiobooks, radio plays and film dubbing. He was the voice of Christopher’s Lee’s Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Tolkein movies. Mellies died in April of 2020. In spite of all his work in films and television, he is best remembered for his theater work. In their obituary for him, Der Spiegel called him “one of the most important theater actors in the country.” In an interview for Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, Mellies said “For me the theater was the mother of art. Everything else, film, television, radio, I did on the side. But I enjoyed everything” (“Für mich war das Theater die Mutter der Kunst. Alles andere, Film, Fernsehen, Rundfunk, habe ich nebenbei getan. Aber es hat mir alles Spaß gemacht.”).
Horst Weinheimer was less well-known than Mellies, but no less easily recognized. He didn’t appear in as many movies as his co-star, but he worked on dozens of TV movies and television shows. As with several other East German actors who worked primarily in television, the Wende didn’t end his career. He appeared often on the small screen, most notably as Friedrich Junge in the popular series Für alle Fälle Stefanie (For Every Case, Stephanie). He died in 2017.
Simplon Tunnel is very much a period piece. It’s not one of Kolditz’s best films, but even weak Kolditz is better than most others. The scenes in the tunnels are genuinely claustrophobic and looked uncomfortable to film. The human relationships here avoid the facile solutions you often find in Hollywood films. It’s certainly worth a look.
1. The New York Times, March 13, 1905, lists the fatalities at 87 lives but gives no details.
2. The movie moved the action to a different location and changed Grant’s allegiance from SMERSH to SPECTRE..
3. Although Margit Schaumäker appeared in several films, she is best known for being the first announcer on the East German television. Although it was only a test broadcast, her message, “Here is the test program of the Berlin TV Center” (“Hier ist das Versuchsprogramm des Fernsehzentrums Berlin”) signaled the beginning of television broadcasting in the GDR.
4. Apparently, committing suicide rather than have to confront the Russians was a popular activity in March and April of 1945. For more information on this subject, check out Florian Huber’s book “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself”” (Kind, versprich mir, dass du dich erschiesst).
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