Not Rated | 2h 5min | Drama, History, Thriller | 21 February 2020 (USA)
Whereas World War II has seen hundreds of cinematic recreations, from the 1945 Academy Award-nominated “The Story of G.I. Joe” all the way up to 2019’s excellent “Midway,” there have been fewer films about the post-war era. Recently there has been a surge of films that cover the end of the war and its aftereffects, such as 2020’s “Waiting for Anya” and the haunting “Those Who Remained.” Director Michael Herbig’s “Balloon” adds to that number.
“Balloon,” based on a true story, is set in the late 1970s when the Berlin Wall separated two starkly different ways of life. Since 1949, Germany had been literally split in two. The western portion, called the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), is presided over by the Allied countries of America, Britain, and France. On the other side is the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), which is ruled over with an iron fist by the Soviets.
Under communism, life in East Germany is grueling, similar to living in the utterly wretched Soviet gulags. Meanwhile, its Western counterpart is thriving economically, culturally, academically, and so on.
Communism and socialism are all about centralized state power that erodes individual rights and freedoms, even the right to own property. Thus, in East Germany, the secret police (or Stasi) control almost every aspect of people’s everyday lives within the surveillance state.
“Balloon” focuses on two particular families that want out of East Germany—the Wetzels and the Strelzyks. But the border between the two countries is heavily patrolled, and border guards have orders to shoot would-be escapees, so things look pretty grim.
Instead of a land crossing, the two patriarchs of the families, Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke) and Günter Wetzel (David Kross), devise a plan to fly over the guards’ heads instead—in a hot air balloon. Not just any balloon, but one that they plan to make themselves. But can they construct one that is sturdy enough to transport themselves, their wives, and their combined four children?
In addition to running clandestine tests on their homemade burner, the two families travel miles in order to acquire the fabric that they hope will suit their needs. This meticulous planning phase happens over almost two years.
Eventually, the moment of truth arrives, and they all board their homemade escape balloon. They manage to ascend quite high, but as they encounter some low clouds, moisture weighs down the balloon and even manages to extinguish its burner. The balloon loses altitude quickly and crash-lands just inside East Germany, not far from a border barrier. They narrowly escape.
This failure frightens the Wetzels so much that they give up further attempts at escape. The Strelzyks, however, want to try again. They procure even sturdier fabric, and tell the store clerks that they’re putting together tents for camping trips. They also convince the Wetzels to give it another shot.
More proficient and efficient in the construction of their second balloon, the two families gather for what could be their final voyage—for good or ill. With desperation etched into their faces, they embark on a do-or-die mission. Will they realize their dreams of freedom this time around?
“Balloon,” a gentle parable in this retelling of actual events, is a fascinating look at the stark disparities between life under a free market and a socialist economy.
The film also shows how families are stronger when they’re united. Together against the odds, the Strelzyks and Wetzels face not only poverty and the loss of individual freedoms and rights but also the omnipresent threat of the hyper-oppressive Stasi.
The excellent acting, direction, and pacing of the film converge well, painting a tapestry of living history that reminds us all too well of socialism’s defective economic policy and the despair and death that comes with its counterpart: a fundamentally flawed ideology.
Director: Michael Herbig
Starring: Friedrich Mücke, Karoline Schuch, David Kross
Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 21, 2020
Rated: 4 stars out of 5