BALLOON, Germany, 2019. Starriing Friedrich Muche, Karoline Schuch, David Kross, Alicia von Rittberg, Thomas Kretschmann, Jonas Holdenrieder, Tilman Dobler. Directed by Michael Bully Herbig. 125 minutes. Rated M (Violence)
The Australian release of Balloon was timely, the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And Balloon ends with the fall, the freedom for East Germans to enter the West.
However, the action of the film goes back a decade, to the tight restrictions of the German Democratic Republic (certainly an ironic national name), the strictly controlled borders between East and West Germany, orders to shoot to kill, and the background of the investigations of the Stasi. These realities are brought home very forcibly here, the driven need for some citizens to escape, the ruthlessness of the authorities, ordinary citizens spying on their neighbours…
This is the well-known story of two families who escaped in 1979, crossing the border into Bavaria in a balloon. The film shows a previous attempt, just failing by some metres (and background notes indicate that there had been a previous attempt to that, but using material that was easily destroyed).
For an audience who likes watching films with tension in them, this can certainly be recommended. At times, the audience identifies with the escape attempt, the restricted time limit to make another balloon, the authorities searching for the escapees, the insistent detective work that the officials were doing, some split-second timing in the final escape, authorities alert, helicopters in the air.
There was an American film, Night Crossing, released in 1982 with John Hurt and Jane Alexander as the central couple, within three years of the events.
One of the great dramatic advantages of the film is that the initial attempt comes quite early, introducing the motivation for getting out of the German Democratic Republic, the work done in sewing the balloon, making the platform, getting the gas canisters, testing. The audience shares the frustration when the attempt fails, happy when the family is not immediately re-captured, goes back to normal, but eager to try again.
Audiences will also identify strongly with the central characters, Peter and Doris Strelzyk and their two sons. Friedrich Muche is convincing as the electrician who masterminds the attempt, supported by his wife and his teenage son, Frank, and taking with them the younger son, Fitscher. They engage the help of their friend who sewed the first balloon, Gunter Wetzel (David Kross) who has six weeks before entering national service. So, there is time tension, how to buy the material and not be exposed, how to look for the time and place to sew the balloon, the support of Gunter’s wife and the possibility of a bigger platform with their leaving with the young son.
But, there is further tension as the officials and the Stasi investigate the case, try to trace the canisters, the material, pharmacy information on tablets they find, the locations for the suspects. To that extent, this part of the film is a detective story, led by the official, Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann) who has a sneaking admiration for the escapees and their quest but who is ideological fixated on the regime.
The other fear that the East Germans had was the consequence of the success of the escape, the humiliation that they could not prevent it and German opinion, world opinion of the regime. Which makes the detective work even more insistent and urgent.
Needless to say, the final escape is nail-biting, the timing, the government surveillance, details going wrong, the balloon losing height, crash landing as with the first attempt.
As with so many films these days based on actual events, there are quite a number of pictures of the real characters during the final credits.
Studiocanal Released October 31st
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.