'Balloon': Film Review

Balloon - Publicity Still - H 2020
Distrib Films
Too much hot air.

Michael Bully Herbig's thriller recounts the true-life story of how two East German families escaped to the West using a hot-air balloon.

True-life stories of international intrigue are usually dramatized first in their native countries and then later adapted into American films. The reverse has proven true for the dramatic events depicted in Michael Bully Herbig's film about a daring 1979 escape by two families from East Germany via hot air balloon. First depicted in the 1982 Disney film Night Crossing, starring John Hurt, Jane Alexander and Beau Bridges, the story has been retold in the German box-office hit Balloon, now receiving an American theatrical release.

It would be a pleasure to report that this more authentic version of the tale marks a major improvement over its predecessor, which was hardly one of Disney's finer efforts. But while the current film proves competent in its storytelling, it fails to fully capitalize on the inherent power of the real-life events that inspired it. Lacking the nail-biting suspense that the story would seem to call for, Balloon quickly deflates.  

Released to coincide with the 30th anniversary of German reunification, the pic recounts the story of the Strelzyk and Wetzek families, who were desperate to flee the repressive German Democratic Republic and relocate in West Germany. The plan devised by Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mucke) and Gunter Wetzel (David Kross) involved the creation of a handmade hot-air balloon that would transport them, their wives and their combined four children over the border late at night.

The first attempt, involving the Wetzels (it turned out that the balloon they devised wasn't large enough for all of them), fails, with the balloon crashing into a forest before it could cross over the border. Although the family is able to make their way back home, the balloon is eventually discovered by the authorities, who begin an intense manhunt to find the culprits before they can try again. The Stasi's Colonel Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann, Valkyrie, delivering the most compelling performance) leads the investigation, and his men discover a bottle of medication accidentally dropped by Doris Strelzyk (Karoline Schuch) and painstakingly attempt to trace it to its owner.

Although Seidel pursues his quarry with the intensity of Inspector Javert, he also displays a certain ambivalence toward his task. "Why don't we just let them go, if they think they would be so much happier over there?" he asks rhetorically, in one of the few moments when the movie's dialogue resonates.

With the aborted attempt occurring in the film's first half-hour, most of the remaining running time centers on the two families desperately attempting to build another balloon before they're inevitably captured by the secret police. The danger is amplified by the presence of the Strelzyk's neighbors, whose jovial patriarch happens to be a Stasi official. Fortunately, he seems mostly preoccupied with exploiting Peter's talents as an electrician to rig up his television so he can watch Western programming, especially episodes of Charlie's Angels.

Herbig, who directed and co-scripted the pic with Kit Hopkins and Thilo Roscheisen, is best known in his native country as a broad comedian. So it's a little surprising that this effort proves largely free of the sort dark humor that might have enlivened its standard-issue dramatic tropes. Instead, he allows the pacing to suffer from such unnecessary subplots as a romance between two of the teenage characters. The film also suffers from its predictable series of near-misses and misdirections as we see the families seem to nearly get caught, only to miraculously escape detection, time and time again.

More problematically, Balloon simply doesn't feature the sort of cinematic thrills necessary to keep us fully invested in the travails of its central characters. It's not that the events are depicted in anything less than bombastic, hyperbolic fashion. It's more that the filmmaker lacks the directorial finesse to calibrate the suspense for maximum cinematic effect. Balloon doesn't exactly make you want to revisit the Disney version of the story, but it certainly makes you wonder what a Spielberg or Christopher Nolan would have been able to do with it.

Production companies: herbX Film, StudioCanal, SevenPictures Films
Distributor: Distrib Films
Cast: Friedrich Mucke, Karoline Schuch, David Kross, Alicia von Rittenberg, Thomas Kretschmann, Jonas Holdenrieder, Tilman Dobler, Ronald Kukulies
Director-producer: Michael Bully Herbig
Screenwriters: Kit Hopkins, Thilo Roscheisen, Michael Bully Herbig
Director of photography: Torsten Breuer
Production designer: Bernd Lepel
Composer: Ralf Wengenmayr, Marvin Miller
Costume designer: Lisy Christl
Casting: Daniela Tolkien

125 minutes