Michael Bully Herbig (director)
07 October 2019 (released)
14 October 2019
Based on a true story, BALLOON chronicles the daring and dangerous escape of two families from Communist East Germany to the West in 1979. Although constructed like a thriller, the film leaves little doubt about the general atmosphere at the time: prevailing paranoia and fear that the notorious Stasi secret police might knock on ones door at any given moment, not to mention neighbours who might ‘spy’ on you.
It’s summer in Thuringen, East Germany – folks go about their daily lives while planning their holidays. When Erik Baumann chats with his neighbour, electrician Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke) about their next holiday, Peter doesn’t have an immediate answer. While Erik enthuses over Bulgaria and the Black Sea, Strelzyk clearly is fed up with visiting places in other Communist countries. In fact, he’s fed up with living in Communist East Germany and he and his family, including wife Doris (Karoline Schuch), their teenage son Frank (Jonas Holdenrieder) and their little boy Fitscher (Tilman Döbler) are planning their escape to the West – although little Fitscher is initially kept in the dark for fear he might accidentally spill the beans in school.
The Strelzyks are friends with another family, the Wetzels who include father Günter (David Kross) – a bricklayer, his young wife Petra (Alicia von Rittberg), and their little son Peterchen (Till Patz). They too dream of escaping to the West, but Günter’s military draft is lurking round the corner. Pretending to be sick, he gains a few more weeks of ‘freedom’ which should give him enough time to stitch together a hot air balloon… for Günter is very versatile when it comes to using sewing machines. Meanwhile, Peter uses his knowledge as an electrician to figure out how best to use propane gas for the journey.
After tense preparations the day of escape has arrived but then the Wetzels have a last minute change of mind. The Strelzyks proceed on their own and what follows are ten minutes of nail-biting tension, what with inflating the balloon in an open space hoping it isn’t easily detected by patrolling police. They manage to go up in the air but an unexpected glitch prompts the balloon to descend about half a mile before they would have been in the West. Knowing full well the danger they’re in the Strelzyks try to hide any proof of their escape but that’s easier said than done. Keeping a low profile over the next few weeks the Strelzyks – and this time the Wetzels too – are working on a more fool-proof plan and Günter Wetzel is hard at work stitching together another balloon. When Doris Strelzyk asks for 200 meters of a certain fabric in a textile shop the sales assistant becomes suspicious and informs the authorities. Both families now have to buy smaller amounts of fabric from different shops but then another unexpected ‘hiccup’ occurs: Doris forgot her medication when the Strelzyks hastily had to abandon the damaged balloon and now Comrade Lieutenant Seidel (Thomas Kretschman) and his helpers already have a clue as to the possible identity of the defectors. As a desperate race against time begins and both families are aware that escape via balloon is the only option if they don’t want to risk certain death at the heavily fortified border it’s now a question of human endurance… and sheer luck. The film’s final twenty minutes are incredibly tense, with the balloon flying direction freedom and Lieutenant Seidel hot on their heels in a helicopter. Eventually both the Wetzels and the Strelzyks manage to land safely in Bavaria on the Western side, but at what cost… having had to leave behind their grandparents and in fact their whole entire life.
A gripping and film that offers many thoughtful moments and demonstrates only too well the political climate of the former East German regime.