Handsome and old-fashioned, the new German film Balloon tells the true story of a family’s daring 1979 escape from East Germany in a homemade hot-air balloon
by Steve Murray
March 12, 2020
You can predict what happens in Balloon, even if you haven’t read the Wikipedia entry on the escape-from-East-Germany incident, or seen the 1982 film Night Crossing, an American adaptation of the real-life story. That’s because the new German film–handsomely made in an old-fashioned way–is filled with some familiar, even clichéd action beats designed to ratchet up suspense in a story whose ending is already known.
The film, opening March 13 at Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, unfolds in 1979. We meet the Strelzyk family in a state of rising tension, caused by the seemingly harmless sight of some released birthday-party balloons bending sharply as they rise into the sky. The wind has changed. Dad Peter (Friedrich Mücke), wife Doris (Karoline Schuch) and teen son Frank (Jonas Holdenrieder) hasten home to quickly pack and drive into the darkening woods.
We soon see why as they assemble a handmade hot-air balloon in an isolated clearing, one that looks too rickety to carry a family of four, including young son Fitscher, who had no idea his family was planning this perilous attempt to flee the German Democratic Republic. (A caption at the film’s start tells us that 38,000 tried and failed to escape between 1976 and ’88; nearly 500 of them died, often inches away from the border.)
Since this opening sequence is a prologue, you won’t be surprised when the balloon goes down, still grounded in Soviet-held Germany. The Strelzyk’s then have to decide whether they should try building another one. That’s risky in a society ruled by the Stasi, who encourage neighbors to spy on neighbors. The point is brought home a bit too emphatically, introducing us to the family’s next-door neighbor, an apparatchik of the Ministry for State Security. Unlike the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, Balloon doesn’t traffic in shades of emotional gray; the villains here are cartoonish.
The closest to an exception is Oberstleutnant Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann), the military bloodhound in charge of piecing together clues from the discovered balloon wreckage in order to track the people responsible for the flight. That Seidel suggests nuances his colleagues lack may come less from the way he’s written than the intelligent, quietly charismatic way Kretschmann plays him.
Before deciding to start buying up hundreds of yards of new taffeta to sew (there is a lot of sewing in Balloon), the Strelzyk’s try one last option. Traveling to Berlin for family vacation, Peter naively tries to sneak a message seeking asylum, tucked in a cigarette pack, into the U.S. Embassy.
That doesn’t work. So the epic sewing begins, mainly undertaken by friend Günther (David Kross), who wants to take his own family of four aloft with the Strelzyks. Director Michael Herbig manages to work up some contrapuntal tension, as Günther mans the sewing machine round the clock while Seidel and the whole Stasi apparatus get ever closer to the families’ small town.
Some very exciting, close calls we see in the film did not, in fact, actually happen. Whether or not teenage Frank was actually dating the daughter of the rotten bureaucrat next door, I couldn’t tell you. It plays like a lame, convenient fabrication. Night Crossing in 1982 was a Disney production, but sometimes – with its beat-by-beat scenes of family tension and family reconciliation – the new film can feel as square and prepackaged as the studio’s product from that era.
I don’t mean to come down super-hard on Balloon. It’s satisfying in a Sunday-afternoon matinee kind of way. But during its final minutes, you half expect to see some wily nuns, and the Von Trapp kids singing “So Long, Farewell” as they race through the night toward the Alps.
Steve Murray is an award-winning arts journalist who has written about film, theater, books, and television for a quarter century.
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