I was quite interested in watching German film “Balloon” for a personal reason. It is based on an unbelievable real-life story which was also the basis of 1982 Disney film “Night Crossing” (1982), and that movie was incidentally one of numerous films I watched via TV during my childhood years. Although I must say that it is not a very good movie to say the least, I still remember well being thrilled by its several highlight moments, and I also came to love its dramatic score by Jerry Goldsmith, which is included in my vast collection of movie score albums.
From “Balloon”, I expected some improvement over “Night Crossing”, but it turns out to be another passable work on the whole. While it is a competent piece of work in technical aspects, the movie is unfortunately hampered by its pedestrian handling of story and characters just like its predecessor, and I must confess that I felt like merely watching a slightly modified revival during my viewing.
As many of you already know, the movie is about two East German families who successfully escaped their oppressive communist nation via their homemade hot-air balloon in 1979, and the first act of the movie focuses on the first escape attempt which was the mixed result of good and bad luck. Not long after attending a local community event, Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke) comes to see that the weather becomes quite ideal for the escape plan which he and his close friend Günter Wetzel (David Kross) have prepared for a long time along with their wives and Strelzyk’s adolescent older son. He immediately contacts Wetzel, but Wetzel backs from the plan in the last minute because he has been very uncertain about the plan for understandable reasons, so Strelzyk decides to escape only with his wife and two sons.
During the following night, Strelzyk and his family manage to leave their house with the balloon and other necessary things, while not drawing any suspicion from their neighbors including a secret police official who happens to live right across from their house. Once they arrive at a remote spot in the forest outside their town, Strelzyk and his older son quickly prepare for the take-off of their balloon, and everything seems to be going well as the balloon eventually leaves the ground, but, alas, the balloon goes down not long after that.
When they find that they fail to cross the border between East and West Germany, Strelzyk and his family certainly get scared, but they manage to return to where they left during the early morning without getting caught by the police or the border patrol. Once they are back in their house, they act very carefully for avoiding suspicion from others, but they are well aware of that the secret police will soon search for them, and Strelzyk comes to decide that they should try something else in East Berlin.
During its middle act which revolves around the Strelzyks’ rather clumsy attempt to escape in East Berlin, the movie loses some of its narrative momentum, and there are several contrived moments which do not work as well as intended, but it generates some suspension via a secret police officer named Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann), who slowly embarks on his investigation after the crashed balloon is discovered. Unfortunately, the Strelzyk left behind a few objects which can be traced back to them, and Seidel and his men have a considerable amount of resource for their investigation.
Meanwhile, Strelzyk and his family come to realize that they have no choice but to escape via making the second balloon, and he also persuades Günter and his family to rejoin the plan. This time, they need a bigger balloon, and they certainly have to be more careful in buying materials for building their balloon. Furthermore, they must build the balloon as soon as possible, because the secret police suddenly appear in front of their houses at any moment.
However, the screenplay by director/co-producer/co-writer Michael Bully Herbig and his two co-writers Kit Hopkins and Thilo Röscheisen fails to accumulate dramatic tension during its last act mainly due to its thin storytelling and characterization. For example, a subplot involved with the relationship between Strelzyk’s son and a certain neighborhood girl is rather artificial, and the last-minute chase sequence is quite predictable without much tension on the screen. Although the main cast members of the film are well-cast, they are mostly limited by their bland characters, and Thomas Kretschmann is particularly wasted as being stuck with a thankless job of constantly looking grim and sour throughout the movie.
At least, the technical qualities of the film shine especially during the expected climactic part. Cinematographer Torsten Breuer did a commendable job of bringing considerable verisimilitude to the flying scenes in the film, and the music by Marvin Miller and Ralf Wengenmayr swells along with that, though I still miss those more rousing moments in Goldsmith’s score for “Night Crossing”.
“Balloon” is not a total bore at all, but it is still a disappointment in my humble opinion, and many archival photographs shown during its end credits only remind us of how the real-life story of the Strelzyks and the Wetzels is still much more interesting than the movie itself. It does float, but it does not soar as much as I hoped, and I can only wish the third time to be a charm.