2020, NR, 125 min. Directed by Michael Herbig. Starring Karoline Schuch, Friedrich Mucke, Jonas Holdenrieder, Tilman Döbler, David Kross, Alicia von Rittberg, Thomas Kretschmann, Ronald Kukulies, Emily Kusche.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 27, 2020
Stories of escape and paranoia seem particularly poignant in these times. So Balloon - Michael Herbig's recreation of one of the most audacious escapes from occupied East Germany during the Cold War - may strike more of a note in American audiences than it would have only weeks ago.
In 1979, two families from the tiny industrial town of Poessneck drifted 20 miles across the border from East to West Germany in a home-made balloon that they had constructed day by day, buying parts and cloth where they could, testing their jerry-rigged escape vehicle under shadow of night and fear of the ubiquitous and cruel Stasi, the all-powerful secret police that could make anyone disappear, or put them on display for a show trial.
Older audiences may remember the same story being told as Night Crossing, Delbert Mann's 1982 American vision of their flight to freedom. Yet that version told the entire 18-month story of how the entire plan was concocted and finally executed. Comedian-turned-director Herbig (who co-wrote the script with Kit Hopkins and Thilo Röscheisen) instead starts midway through the plot – at the first, failed attempt in June, 1979. Even though the weather is bad, Peter Strelzyk (Mucke) decides to push ahead with his family, leaving his more nervous coworker, Günter Wetzel (Kross), behind. However, Wetzel was right to blanch at the attempt, as the Strelzyks – Peter, wife Doris (Strelzyk), and sons Andreas (Döbler) and Frank (Ho)denrieder – crash to earth with only a few scratches. Yet they cannot turn back now: the Stasi have the debris from the crash, Gunter is going to be dispatched to join the army. It's now or never, so the two families have to make a second, better balloon or face life (or worse) in an East German prison.
In this entertainingly tense thriller, Hebrig finds extraordinary courage and understandable fear in both the Strelzyk and Wetzels (although the Wetzels are mostly pushed into the background for the opening acts). He also reconstructs exactly why they would be so paranoid, as it seems that everyone is either an agent or an informer (a state of affairs often not far from the truth). The Stasi's police procedural is the ticking clock, given most cutting pressure by an exceptional Kretschmann as a soft-spoken officer from Berlin. He's counterbalanced by Kukulies as the Strelzyks' oafish but affable neighbor, a less-than-super agent whose daughter (Kusche) is the potentially dangerous object of Frank's teenage affections.
That's one of several convenient but often true barriers that only increase the tension and risk – hurdles often created by small errors that these amateur aeronauts don't realize they have made until they're in deeper danger. It may be formulaic (and one sequence in particular, as the Stasi are closing in on the house and the unwitting Strelzyks, is a straight riff on a classic cat-and-mouse scene) but this story of the indefatigable human spirit will have you cheering.
Balloon is currently available through Distrib Films' initiative whereby streaming rentals can be bought through virtual ticket booths for local art house cinemas. Choose from:
• Alamo Drafthouse (tickets here)
• Violet Crown Cinema (tickets here)