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Berlin Wall 30
Balloon: Rousing true tale, by-the-numbers escape thriller

A hot air balloon is prepared for flight in German film "Balloon"
© Studio Canal

Comedian-turned-filmmaker Michael Bully Herbig turns a fascinating slice of history into a routine thriller in Balloon, which dramatises the 1979 defection, by hot air balloon, of two East German families. The film is screening in Australian cinemas to mark this month's 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

By Sarah Ward

A real-life escape becomes a Hollywood-style thriller in Balloon, dramatising the events of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families’ famed defection from East to West Germany via a late-night hot air balloon journey in 1979.

With the true tale already adapted in the US in 1982’s Night Crossing, Michael Bully Herbig’s film is a homegrown affair timed to mark this year 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And yet, accents and locations aside, this by-the-numbers feature could’ve been made anywhere, with its power watered down by its devoted adherence to cliché.
There’s such a sense of neatness and convenience to Balloon - such a strong willingness to not only hit every expected note, but to unfurl its story in an overwhelmingly generic way - that the facts of the matter may as well be fiction. Life fitting a recognisable template is one thing; life purposefully being smoothed down to fill a well-worn mold is another entirely. Herbig and co-writers Kit Hopkins and Thilo Röscheisen (TV movie Starfighter - Sie wollten den Himmel erobern) have taken liberties with the details, but to bland, calculating and sentimental effect. As a result, what should be rousing and suspenseful too often feels merely routine. The Strelzyk and Wetzel families plan their escape in "Balloon" The Strelzyk and Wetzel families are desperate to leave the German Democratic Republic | © Studio Canal


In 1979, in the Thuringia town of Pößneck, Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke) and Günter Wetzel (David Kross) are waiting. One is an electrician, known around his neighbourhood for being a tinkerer, while the other is an ambulance driver who’s handy with a sewing machine. For the past two years, they’ve secretly been fashioning a hot air balloon to spirit themselves, their wives Doris (Karoline Schuch) and Petra (Alicia von Rittberg), and their children from the German Democratic Republic’s communist regime to freedom in the Federal Republic of Germany. Their daring sky-high quest requires a strong northerly wind, something that’s rare - so when one starts swirling on Youth Dedication Day, the men spring into action.
Alas, their first try ends in a crash landing -  even after the Strelzyks attempt the feat without the Wetzels, who opt to stay home because the balloon’s basket is too small to carry eight people. The vessel’s debris attracts the attention of the State Security Service, especially the determined Oberstleutnant Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann), which gives Peter and Günter added impetus to flee.

If they stay, their fate is certain: in a nation where escaping over the border is a grievous crime, they’ll eventually be caught. The fact that the Strelzyks live across the road from local Stasi agent Erik Baumann (Ronald Kukulies), and that Peter and Doris’ teenage son Frank (Jonas Holdenrieder) has fallen for Erik’s daughter Klara (Emily Kusche), also complicates matters. Thomas Kretschmann plays the role of Oberstleutnant Seidel in "Balloon" Thomas Kretschmann (left) plays the role of Oberstleutnant Seidel in "Balloon" | © Studio Canal


Best known in Germany as the comedian behind 1997-2002 sketch show Bullyparade, and initially using big-screen spinoffs from the series to help transition into filmmaking, Herbig makes every expected choice with Balloon. Even with the outcome of the Strelzyks and Wetzels’ efforts a matter of history, this isn’t a film of innate tension, although it labours forcefully to prove otherwise. When the movie lingers on a confessional love letter that could expose the balloon plot, stresses Erik’s generally suspicious nature, and lets toddlers say the darnedest — and most incriminating — things, it uses every creaky trick in the thriller book. When it plays bait-and-switch with a crucial scene that could’ve seen the Stasi arrive at the Strelzyks’ door, it relies upon editing gimmickry rather than trusting the strength of the true story. At times, the feature flirts with complexity, particularly when it renders Seidel as more than a one-note villainous authority figure; however it rarely has the conviction to paint in shades of grey, or subtlety.
Still, a great story is a great story. And when the nuts and bolts of the Strelzyks and Wetzels’ quest shine through, Balloon gains momentum. It helps that leads Mücke, Schuch, Kross and von Rittberg bring nuance to their roles, conveying the weight of not only pondering such a dangerous trip, or making it, but of taking such a big leap in leaving their lives and other loved ones behind in the name of a better, less restrictive future. The period details, too, capably set the scene, including a trip to the divided Berlin.
Nonetheless, in favouring the safest, most obvious method of unfurling its tale, Balloon feels like it’s floating in a gentle breeze mere metres off the ground, rather than catching a strong gust and soaring high. The same proved true of the year’s other big German release that peers back at history - Never Look Away - although the Oscar-nominated film looks positively intricate in comparison. Perhaps, if the Strelzyks and Wetzels’ efforts reach the screen again, the third time will prove the charm. For now, a daring real-life feat begets a watchable but all-too-standard movie.