East Germany, 1979. Two families, the Strelzyks and the Wetzels, conspire to secretly build a hot air balloon and use it to cross the border into the West. When they barely survive their first attempt, they must race against time to construct and launch a second balloon before the Stasi track them down.
There is a chance that you may be familiar with the story of the Strelzyks and the Wetzels via the 1982 Disney production Night Crossing. (It was the early 80s and Disney was making a lot of weird films.) Indeed it’s only through the intervention of Hollywood-based director/producer Roland Emmerich that the rights were wrested back to enable this new – and first – German adaptation of the iconic escape story. It is not a worthwhile production simply because the German cast and crew lend it an air of authenticity. Disney’s production, while admirable, contorted real events into a family adventure film. In the rather surprising hands of comedic actor/director Michael Bully Herbig, Balloon is a slickly-made and much more adult thriller.
The suspense ramps up from the get-go: the first balloon is too small to carry both families, so the Strelzyks go alone. They miss the Bavarian border by a few hundred metres, and must make their way back through 10 kilometres of forest to reach their car. They know their balloon will be found, and that – sooner or later – they will be found and executed by the secret police. This sets up a strong back-and-forth narrative. On one side, the Stasi begin their hunt for the mystery balloonists. On the other, both families race around the clock to make another balloon before they are discovered. The first balloon took 18 months to make. Tthey need a second within weeks.
The film boasts a fine attention to detail, and a strong sense of time and place. By using practical props wherever possible, Herbig and his crew develop a realism that many historical dramas lack. The paranoia, built through various angles, pauses, and musical cues, is often overwhelming.
As protagonists, Karoline Schuch and Friedrich Mücke play Doris and Peter Strelzyk to perfection. There is both a realism to them and a touching vulnerability. They are ably supported by the rest of the cast – David Cross and Alicia von Rittberg as the Wetzels, and Jonas Holdenreider and Tilman Döbler as sons Frank and Fitscher – and by a strong screenplay. Time is taken for moments of emotion and humanity, which further enhance the characters beyond a run-of-the-mill against-the-clock thriller.
The film’s most valuable player, however, is easily Thomas Kretschmann as the coolly professional Oberstleutnant Seidel. Tasked with tracking down the makers of the crashed hot air balloon, he is as relentless as he is methodical. It is rather reminiscent of Andrew Davis’ 1993 thriller The Fugitive, in which Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent Sam Gerard comes to dominate half of the film in his pursuit of Harrison Ford’s protagonist. Kreschmann brings a similar level of charm and intensity in his role. While you do not want him to succeed, it is addictive watching him work.
Balloon is a very commercially-minded film, straight-forward in the telling and conventional in execution. It is, however, a solid and hugely entertaining work. It is a true story worthy in the telling, and it is wonderful to finally see a German version of it on the screen.
Balloon opens nationally in Australian cinemas on 31 October.