Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/09/19 21:33:14

"Floating to freedom is harder than it looks."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

When I first saw the description of "Balloon", I pegged it as a light family adventure, likely because the idea of fleeing a repressive society in a homemade hot-air balloon sounds fanciful, and the film didn't have enough red-flag content for the local ratings board to give it anything but the least restrictive rating. Of course, evading the Stasi while attempting to escape East Germany was no small matter, and that makes this movie a serious, no-nonsense thriller even if it doesn't have any harsh language or graphic violence. It's something of a throwback in that way, but that works for it.

It opens in 1979 on the day of the "Youth Dedication Ceremony" in the city of Possneck. Frank Strelzyk (Jonas Holdenrieder) is one of the graduating eighth-graders being honored as father Peter (Friedrich Mücke) mocks the presiding official to wife Doris (Karoline Schuch), despite the fact that they'll be giving neighbors Erik & Beate Baumann (Ronald Kukulies & Elisabeth Wasserscheid) a ride home, and Erik is a sort of mid-level bureaucrat with the Stasi. They don't intend to face the consequences, though, as the Strelzyks and their friends Günter & Petra Wetzel (David Kross & Alicia von Rittberg) have been working years on a hot-air balloon that will take them south, over the border to Bavaria, and the wind is right, even if the Wetzels have cold feet. The Strelzyks almost make it, but "almost" is a dangerous situation - it leaves enough clues behind for Lt. Col Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann) to pick up the scent, meaning they have to try again, except with weeks rather than months and the Stasi looking for them specifically.

Director and co-writer Michael Bully Herbig gets to that point, where the real meat of the film begins, fairly quickly, dispensing with a lot of what might be treated as important establishment of motivation. You don't really need to be told why anybody might want to flee East Germany, let alone why it's important for this specific group, so Herbig throws that in as details at the point where characters might actually mention it. Similarly, since this story involves the families doing a lot of things twice, it makes a lot of sense to just skip over the first time as much as possible rather than later feel like the filmmakers are spinning wheels or diminishing something's importance by doing a montage or not showing it later. It's a smart approach to this specific story and also just good storytelling in general - there's never a sense of anything important being left out or a filmmaker obviously trying to shape a story.

It reminds me of The Fugitive in the way it keeps its eye on the prize, building suspense while also pulling back just enough to watch everybody's faces. That movie also comes to mind for how Thomas Kretschmann plays his pursuing adversary with dogged intelligence and professionalism, initially seeming kind of philosophical and sympathetic, just a man out there doing his job whom you can tell yourself would rather be chasing down really dangerous criminals, just occasionally putting something in his voice or gaze to remind the viewer that you don't get to his rank without ever being a ruthless tool of the state. It's still fun to watch him run leads down - it plays like a good detective movie - despite constantly being reminded he's the bad guy.

On the other side, the simple to plan but hard to execute procedure is just as involving, even if the rest of the cast seldom has as many moments when they can drop a mask in that way; the closest they get is moments of sudden panic or reaction when someone brings up why they want out. It lets Karoline Schuch be quietly terrific as the pragmatic mother who sees and frets over details from the start, while Friedrich Mücke always makes Peter a little more surprised and consequently nervous when he realizes he's in over his head. Those parents have a more concrete idea of what's at stake than Frank, whom Jonas Holdenrieder gives the proper innocent teenage rebelliousness.

The film also presents an impressively pointed view of what living in this sort of authoritarian place is like, the day-to-day normality regularly interrupted by paranoia and bad memories, with even the corruption seemingly planned to put you in your place. Herbig never stops to show those that didn't grow up in the DDR what it was like; it's a steady thing in the background that occasionally takes the fore like a panic attack, and catching those little details or trying to see if there are any hints as to who can be trusted and who believes hunting defectors down is their patriotic duty likely makes the film plenty (re)watchable even when you know how it ends.

That first impression isn't totally wrong; "Balloon" is an honest thriller but probably suitable for anyone old enough to read the subtitles. It should, indeed, play well for just about anybody; it's straightforward but satisfying suspense and adventure.

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