Hot air rises, even back in the cold, dingy GDR. Unfortunately, the wind rarely blew in a northernly direction. That is one of the many reasons why escape using a hot air balloon was such a desperate and unlikely plan. Nevertheless, two families oppressed by the socialist state will risk everything trying to sail away to freedom in Michael Bully Herbig’s historically accurate Balloon, which opens this Friday in New York.
If this premise sounds familiar, it is because the Walt Disney company produced Night Crossing in 1982, based on the same historical episode. Directed by the Oscar-winning Delbert Mann, the previous film is quite under-appreciated, but this is definitely a story worth re-telling, especially by German filmmakers.
In 1979, Erich Honecker rules East Germany with an iron hand, at Moscow’s behest. Border guards have orders to shoot to kill anyone attempting to cross over to the west, because that is what defending socialism entails. The Strelzyk and Wetzel families are determined to escape the oppressive regime to give their children better lives, so they have been secretly stitching together a hot air balloon as a means of escape. Unfortunately, Gunter Wetzel, the engineer who designed the balloon has come to the conclusion it cannot support both families. Due to the Wetzels’ circumstances, they defer to the Strelzyks, whose flight falters heartbreakingly close to the border.
Unlike the Mann film, which build up the maiden flight, Herbig essentially starts with the initial failed escape attempt and then cranks up the tension as both families go back to the drawing board, mindful that the dreaded Stasi is closing in on them. Rather awkwardly, the Strelzyks live right across the street from the local Stasi section chief. At least, Baumann is a dim-witted blowhard. On the other hand, Lt. Col. Seidel, who is overseeing the investigation of the first balloon crash site and the resulting manhunt, happens to be a shrewd and ruthless predator.
Well-known for comedy in Germany, Herbig set out to make his equivalent of The Lives of Others with Balloon. That is a daunting film to invite comparisons to, but Herbig fares surprisingly well. While Balloon does not have the same tragic heft and inspirational uplift, it is a grittily realistic film that is also nerve-wrackingly tense.
Ironically, Friedrich Mucke and David Kross are so realistic and believable as Strelzyk and Wetzel, their performances are apt to get overlooked, because they are just part and parcel of the depressed and oppressed GDR milieu Herbig and company recreate. Instead, the real standout is Thomas Kretschmann, probably his best work since A Taxi Driver, portraying Seidel with cunning ferocity but also a strange, disarming subtlety.
Production designer Bernd Lepel and his art team impressively reconstruct 1970s East Germany in all its rough tackiness. The resulting film really transports viewers to a very specific place, at a very specific time—and makes us nearly as eager to escape it as the main characters. This is an excellent film that comes at an opportune time—when an open admirer of the Soviet model is primed to win the presidential nomination of a major American political party. Highly and urgently recommended, Balloon opens this Friday (2/2/1) in New York, at the Quad.