Berlin Wall melodrama -- reminder of an ominous presence

On Aug. 13, 1981, the Berlin wall will be 20 years old. Perhaps too many people have forgotten that it still stands, a fearful symbol to the world of the ominous barriers -- political, economic, emotional -- which still separate the Soviet bloc and the West.

"Berlin Tunnel 21" (CBS, Wednesday, 8-11 p.m., check local listings) is a melodramatic tribute to the spirit of those East Berliners who risk everything to escape Soviet tyranny -- over, under, or through that wall. It is a frightening reminder that the ideological battle still rages, with the inherent danger of its turning physical.

Based upon the novel by Donald Lindquist, the story concerns a group of Berliners in conjunction with a former US Army lieutenant, played (with sincere intensity, as always) by Richard Thomas, who tunnels from the basement of an abandoned building in West Berlin to the basement of a vacated house in East Berlin, there to guide friends, relatives, lovers to safety in the west.

In the beginning I was fearful I would be seeing another variation of "Love Boat" with cameo stories of each of the escapees and their would-be tunnelers. But with time (and this one -- as in the case of most made-for-TV movies -- is about an hour too long), the intensity and believability of the story pick up tremendously and, by the end of the drama, you may find yourself weeping with relief for some of the participants, with joy for others, and with sadness for the young lovers.

You may be moved by the final flashback -- former president John F. Kennedy making his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

"Berlin Tunnel 21" is still another case of subject matter that would have made a superb documentary being transposed into the fictional idiom to gain greater ratings. Filmed on location in West Berlin, from a literate screenplay by John Gay and directed by Steve Nicolaides, it manages to overcome an early tendency toward pathos and melodrama. But what could be more melodramatic than the current reality of that pathetic wall itself?

In fact, what I missed most was an actual tour of the border, revealing that foreboding barrier which the Soviets have put up in an inevitably doomed and desperate attempt to shut out the spirit of freedom.

"Berlin Tunnel 21" is a stark reminder. I feel almost guilty that I also found it an exciting entertainment.

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