Movie Review: Balloon (Ballon)

At about 2 am on September 16, 1979, two East German families risked life and limb by sailing a hot air balloon that they had secretly built to freedom in the West. The daring story of the “East German Balloon Escape”, was first made into an English-language film by Disney in 1982. Called NIGHT CROSSING, the film starred John Hurt, Jane Alexander, Beau Bridges and Glynnis O’Connor. Surprisingly, there was never a German-language treatment of the story until now… well, until 2018, which is when BALLOON was released on its home turf. The film has now floated into our cinemas in Hong Kong.

Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke, MAHLER ON THE COUCH), an electrician by trade and an inventor by reputation, lives in the small East German town of Pößneck along his wife, Doris (Karoline Schuch), their teenage son Franck (Jonas Holdenrieder) and younger son Fitscher (Tilman Döbler). He and his best friend, Günter Wetzel (David Kross, RACE; THE READER), both want to leave East Germany with their families and together they come up with the idea of building a hot air balloon and sailing it south across the heavily mined border. In July 1979, with their balloon ready, Strelzyk and his family, attempt to cross but it is not to be. A combination of water vapour condensing on the balloon and the gas pipes freezing up bring the balloon down just a few hundred meters short of the border. Miraculously, they survive the trip and are able to make it home but the balloon is soon discovered and the Stasi are now hot on their tail. With no time to waste, the Strelzyks and Wetzels make a new and better-designed balloon, sailing it to freedom two months later.

I’m sure I saw the Disney version when it came out but I’ll be darned if I can remember it. I’ll bet it wasn’t nearly as nail biting as BALLOON is. Director Michael Bully Herbig, who is better known for his comedy work, does a great job evoking the palpable fear of the time, when absolutely no one could be trusted to keep a secret, Stasi agents were everywhere and anything that seemed out of the ordinary was reported to the police. Even though the ending is no surprise, Herbig and his fellow screenwriters throw in a few well-timed twists and turns (okay, one of them was trite) as the Strelzyks and Wetzels stay barely one half-step ahead of the Stasi to get their balloon made and in the air. It’s a bit of a miracle that they weren’t caught as it seems from the movie that the Stasi could have solved the mystery of the first balloon much early than they did. It’s hard to imagine they were incompetent. Perhaps they were just lazy.

Unfortunately, in the interest of keeping the film’s running time close to two hours, many parts of the real story are shunted aside. Perhaps this story might better have been served as a four-hour TV mini-series. Given what we’ve got though, BALLOON does make for good entertainment if you can “overcome the one inch-tall barrier”, as Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho calls subtitles. I think it’s well worth the attempt.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, February 14th, 8:30 am HK time!

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