In the months after the Berlin Wall rose in August 1961, thousands of East Germans fled to the West. They swam rivers, navigated sewers, climbed or smashed through the Wall. Some were shot by border guards. As new security measures made most methods of escape more and more difficult, several groups of West Germans—young, brave, and a little crazy—tried a new approach: digging tunnels under the Wall to bring out friends, lovers, and family members trapped in the East.
Through one of the first tunnels, completed in January 1962, 28 East Germans escaped to the West—and inspired a Hollywood drama. Imaginatively titled Tunnel 28, the film was directed by Robert Siodmak (known for The Killers and The Spiral Staircase) and featured 17-year-old starlet Christine Kaufmann, whose then-current affair with Tony Curtis promised wide publicity. But the real press excitement began later that spring, when the film was shot on the streets of Berlin. MGM built a fake Wall on the street, which became a tourist attraction, while East German guards tried to harass the filmmakers at the Wall using spotlights or brandishing weapons. Meanwhile, real-life tunnelers kept digging below.
It was more than a little uncanny: real tunnel, fictional movie, filming at a fake Wall, endangered by real guards, reenacting a piece of history still unfolding all around the cameras. But depictions of the escapes by the media, and specifically American media, would always be a part of their story. Another tunnel, funded by NBC, would spark controversy that autumn when President John F. Kennedy and the State Department tried to suppress the network's primetime coverage of it, shortly after pressuring CBS into canceling a planned special on another tunnel. (These episodes are the focus of my new book, The Tunnels.
Tunnel 28 debuted at a gala screening in Berlin in October. The West German government supported the film but critics there panned it, calling the script and characters inauthentic. MGM planned to release the film in the U.S. under another title, Escape from East Berlin. Then the story really got stranger than fiction.
MGM had found a unique figure to promote the film in the U.S. Angelika Ligma, an attractive East German student, had managed to escape to the West in September 1962, hiding under the back seat of an automobile. When she got to the West, a leader of Berlin’s most active escape organization urged her to keep their car smuggling operation secret when she met for interviews with CIA and other intelligence agents, as all refugees were required to (as revealed in documents I recently found at the Stasi archives in Berlin). Car smuggling was a promising new escape method; he didn't want anyone to know about it yet.
As it happened, just a day or two earlier, the tunnel funded by NBC had broken through in the East, and 29 GDR citizens had crawled through it to freedom. The escape organizer instructed Ligma to claim that she had come through that tunnel with about 30 others in a second wave that never actually occurred. She was briefed on what to say by one of the diggers of that tunnel.
The intel operatives who interviewed Ligma bought it. So did the U.S. media, which hiked the total of escapees through “the NBC tunnel" from 29 to a fraudulent 59. Not only that—the operatives tipped off West German officials, who promptly informed MGM about this possible promotional asset. The studio then managed to secure a visa for Ligma in a matter of days, a process that normally took a year or more.
A declassified State Department document reveals that the chief of its Berlin Mission, Allen Lightner, informed Secretary of State Dean Rusk that the consulate had issued the visa to Ligma, explaining that a top West German official and the Berlin police chief "desired assist" the studio's plan to use her in America "to exploit" its film. The West Germans felt the MGM film might boost American support for standing firm in Berlin. But Lightner’s cable ended with a warning: “Dept. may wish contact MGM or suggest German embassy do so to assure exploitation Ligma not counter-productive to Berlin cause.”
Angelika Ligma arrived in America for guest appearances, starting in Michigan. Box Office headlined its brief item, “German Girl on P.A. Tour to Promote German Film.” It revealed that “the girl,” who recently (she claimed) escaped through a tunnel under the Berlin Wall, did not speak English and was conducting interviews via an interpreter. She was known only as “Fraulein Angelika” to protect her family “still in Red Germany.”
Escape from East Berlin was screened for U.S. critics in October, and opened across the country to decidedly mixed reviews. The Los Angeles Examiner complained that in the film many of the people “wanting to leave East Berlin concern themselves with trivia instead of principles and true freedom.” Another critic could not resist calling the drama “shallow.” The movie performed poorly at the box office (it was released on DVD only last year).
There was one final twist. Ligma, unhappy in the West, returned to the East a year later, back across the Wall. This time she was interrogated by agents with the notorious Stasi. Perhaps to avoid further questioning, or even imprisonment, she agreed to serve as a Stasi informer, according to their files. A young woman who could “make herself look good” might gain valuable confidences from “interested men,” they reasoned.
Ligma agreed and was given the code-name “Gerda.” She would work for the Stasi until 1971.
Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books. His latest, The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill (Crown) has just been published.