For German filmmakers, exploring their country’s turbulent recent history is both safe and risky. It’s safe because few detractors would deny the worthiness of films that address the Holocaust, the Baader-Meinhof, or Germany’s 45-year split between Western and Soviet spheres. Yet the weight of such topics can yield films that are stolid, predictable, and—at least outside their home territory—unwatched. Two new German films, both based on actual events, approach this dilemma in different ways. But then The Tunnel and The Ninth Day tell different sorts of stories.

Originally made for German television, The Tunnel is a conventional prison-break movie, with the twists that the prison is an entire country and that the tunnelers are on the outside. Jailed for four years for his involvement in the 1953 anti-government uprising, Harry (Heino Ferch) has redeemed himself by becoming a champion swimmer. Yet he is by no means reconciled to life in East Germany. In 1961, with the Berlin Wall under construction, Harry uses a disguise and a fake passport to cross to the West. There, he reconnects with Matthis (Sebastian Koch), a friend who recently fled through the sewers, and meets Matthis’ new cronies: Vittorio, a one-legged Italian-American ex-GI (Mehmet Kurtulus), and Fred (Felix Eitner), the son of a man executed for joining the plot to kill Hitler.

All of the defectors have left people behind. Harry wants to rescue his sister, Lotte (Alexandra Maria Lara), and her young daughter. (Lotte’s ambivalent husband can come along if he wants.) Matthis seeks to free his girlfriend, Carola (Claudia Michelsen), who was captured during his successful escape—and who is, unknown to him, pregnant. Fred’s goal is to liberate his aristocratic mother, now living under the second regime to consider her an enemy of the state.

The tunnelers locate an abandoned factory next to the Wall, and Matthis, an engineer, draws up the plans. It soon becomes clear, however, that they lack sufficient manpower. So Harry & Co. accept some additional workers with loved ones on the other side, although only one takes a prominent role in the story: Fritzi (Nicolette Krebitz), a high-spirited young woman whose fiancé remains in East Berlin and whose love for him never wavers, even as her attraction to Harry grows. Though the conspirators chance exposure by recruiting more diggers, their biggest potential problem is in the East, where secret-police officer Krüger (Uwe Kockisch) is closely monitoring Carola. She must undertake a bold strategy to safeguard the tunnel project—and prove herself to director Roland Suso Richter and scripter Johannes W. Betz, who apparently have no time for the sort of all-too-human characters who might not have the guts to resist Krüger and all he represents.

Crisp, kinetic, and a bit sentimental, The Tunnel is about as cineplexy as a foreign-language film can be. It has suspense and violence, an evil empire and idealistic rebels, and a satisfyingly triumphant ending. (It’s no secret that the tunnelers succeeded in most of their goals; their project is the best-known of Cold War Berlin’s many subterranean rescue missions.) Star Ferch is basically a Teutonic Bruce Willis, exceedingly manly and capable but with deeper reservoirs of feeling than the action heroes of earlier generations. (In the film’s rock ’n’ roll club scene, he even dances like Willis.) Most of Harry’s exploits aren’t superhuman in the Die Hard mode, but in the film’s last act his conduct is so swashbuckling that it casts doubt on the rescuers’ painstaking scheme. Why not just send a pistol-packing Harry across the border and skip all that messing about with dirt, leaks, and cave-ins?

Some of The Tunnel’s complications are shamelessly melodramatic—would somebody just grab that goddamn baby, please?—but the movie’s principal weakness is simply length. Trimmed modestly for U.S. theatrical release, the thing still runs for 167 minutes. That requires viewers to make quite a commitment to a film that, however gripping, adds little to the historical record and almost nothing to the tunnel-escape genre. And whoever reshaped the movie was unduly reluctant to cut asides, notably the subplot about how the escape was filmed for an NBC TV special. That ready-made irony would be mildly amusing if viewers could believe they had all the time in the world, but Roland Suso Richter is not exactly Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, who can meditate on Hitler for eight hours without running out of material. Despite its political context, The Tunnel is essentially a prison-break flick. And the point of a prison break is to get out as fast as possible.

Modern German history is a recurring motif in the films of Volker Schlöndorff, which include The Tin Drum, The Legend of Rita, and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (the last co-directed with then-wife Margarethe von Trotta). The first two of those, like most of the director’s movies, were adapted from novels, and perhaps it’s his desire to avoid overshadowing the material that makes him such a variable filmmaker. Though he’s a contemporary of the New German Cinema’s big three—Herzog, Wenders, and Fassbinder—Schlöndorff never developed a style as singular as any of theirs. His output includes the occasional thunderbolt—notably 1981’s Beirut-set Circle of Deceit—but it tends to be merely workmanlike, a word that certainly describes The Ninth Day.

Derived from a diary rather than a novel, the film covers a brief period in the life of Abbé Henri Kremer, a Catholic priest in ’40s Luxembourg. Based on Father Jean Bernard, who survived 20 months in Dachau’s “priest block” after being arrested for contacts with the French Resistance, Kremer is played by sunken-faced Ulrich Matthes, who was equally intense as Joseph Goebbels in Downfall. In the tightly compressed opening sequence cued to the customary Holocaust-movie steam-train sounds, the priest arrives in Dachau, whose brutality is sketched quickly. But then steel wheels squeak again as Kremer is returned to Luxembourg for a nine-day furlough that could be extended indefinitely—if only the priest can persuade the country’s bishop to issue a pro-Nazi decree.

Over the course of The Ninth Day, Kremer converses with his fellow prisoners; his brother, sister, and brother-in-law; the bishop and his secretary; and various Nazis. Yet Eberhard Görner and Andreas Pflüger’s script is basically a series of colloquies between the priest and SS Officer Gebhardt (August Diehl), who presents himself as not only a reasonable man but also a former seminarian. Dachau’s enforcer physically tormented Christians and then snarled, “Do you really believe there’s a God?” But Gebhardt is soft-spoken and thoughtful, offering arguments that are alternately practical—Nazism will defeat godless Bolshevism—or theoretical. He suggests that Kremer should think of doing the Germans’ bidding in the spirit of Judas, who had to betray his master to set in motion the events that brought salvation to all Christendom.

With its desaturated colors and mournful music, The Ninth Day is quite similar to other recent Holocaust dramas. Its dialogue-heavy two-man format particularly recalls Itsván Szabó’s 2001 Taking Sides, in which a postwar American interrogator badgers an orchestra conductor who coexisted comfortably with Hitler. The film’s emphasis on Christianity, however, is relatively unusual. Another recent German docudrama, Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: The Last Days, stages comparable conversations between an SS officer and its title character, a young Catholic who was guillotined in 1943 for anti-Nazi pamphleteering.

The cozy implication of these movies is that Catholicism provided a moral counterbalance to Nazism, but the facts of what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945 suggest otherwise. Jean Bernard was probably a brave man, but this talky, overly abstract tale of his fictionalized alter ego is a footnote of interest to specialists only. CP