The creation of tension on screen is wonderful to watch, not to mention being invariably entertaining; the unheralded German drama “Balloon” being the latest case in point.
Based on a true story of a hot-air balloon escape from East Germany so celebrated back in the day that Disney starred John Hurt and Beau Bridges in an 1982 English-language version called “Night Crossing.” “Balloon” is none the worse for wear the second time around.
The film’s director, Michael Bully Herbig, is best known in Germany for his comedies, but collaborating on the screenplay with Kit Hopkins and Thilo Röscheisen has released the taut thriller director in him.
Herbig was responsible for one of the film’s smartest moves, the decision to actually build a physical replica of the narrative’s towering, 100-foot airships, at the time the largest hot-air balloons in Europe, rather than rely on CGI technology.
In an added wrinkle, it was Herbig’s contacts in Hollywood that made it possible for the film to be made at all, for the families involved had sold the film rights to their story to Disney in perpetuity.
But Herbig took the chance of flying to Los Angeles to see if he could meet with director Roland Emmerich, perhaps Germany’s most successful studio filmmaker, and Emmerich managed to secure the German-language rights to the story for him.
As “Balloon’s” rather astonishing tale plays out, it is clear why so many people have been interested in it, and why it continues to involve viewers no matter how many times it is told.
Since the story has a degree of familiarity, director Herbig and his co-writers made the smart decision not to start at the very beginning of a years-long process for the would-be escapees but on the very day of their first attempt.
Before we get to an actual balloon, the film introduces the key personnel, starting with engineer Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke), his wife Doris (Karoline Schuch) and their teenage son Frank (Jonas Holdenrieder), all gathered at a Youth Dedication ceremony where youngest son Fitscher (Tilman Döbler) is being indoctrinated into supporting “the great and noble cause of Socialism.”
The year is 1979, the East German city is Poessneck, and the Strelzyks have been building a balloon and planning an escape to the West for two years. A sudden change in the weather mandates an attempt that very night.
However, the family’s partners in this venture, Günter Wetzel (David Kross) and his wife, Petra (Alicia von Rittberg), decide out of caution to stay behind and not attempt to escape.
An additional complication is that the Strelzyks’ neighbors include the family of Erik Baumann (Ronald Kukulies), a buffoonish type who nevertheless works for the Ministry of State Security, the dreaded Stasi, who tirelessly spy on all citizens.
With the balloon carefully packed away inside a small trailer attached to their trusty Wartburg auto, the Strelzyks do make that initial attempt but it does not end well.
Not only does the family have to make its way home and pretend that nothing happened, they have to decide how they should proceed knowing that the East German government hates attempted escapes and is surely looking for them.
If every thriller needs a good antagonist, “Balloon” has a superb one in relentless Lt. Colonel Seidel (the veteran Thomas Kretschmann), a Stasi higher-up who takes escape attempts personally and mounts a methodical investigation to find out who the failed balloonists were.
Back home and uncertain about what to do next, the Strelzyks’ contrive to visit Berlin in hopes of figuring out another way to exit, but soon enough, everyone concerned, including the newly re-interested Wetzels, realize that, crazy as it sounds, building a second balloon is their only chance at freedom. Which is where the tension begins in earnest.
Given that the Strelzyks and Wetzels live in one of the most surveillance-heavy states of modern times, they are completely aware that everything they do, from buying large amounts of fabric to spending hours sewing it together, are situations that make them deeply vulnerable, where even the slightest misstep can lead to doom.
Filmmaker Herbig and his team prove to be especially adept at contriving situations where anything anyone does causes fear, anxiety, stress and worry, leaving everyone, very much including the audience, existing on the knife’s edge of unremitting tension. It’s a classic movie place to be, and we’re grateful to “Balloon” for putting us there.
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles, Playhouse, Pasadena, Town Center, Encino