Between 1945 and 1990 Germany was a country divided, literally. To the West, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), better known as West Germany and, to the East, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), better known as East Germany.
The divide came about because of the countries defeat in World War II. West Germany was for the Allies and was a democracy, churches, labour unions, Audi cars. The East however, was a Marxist-Leninist socialist republic heavily influenced by the Soviets.
Whilst West Germany thrived, things in the East were very different. Life was tough, the secret police, known as the Stasi, controlled most aspects of people’s daily life and the Berlin Wall dominated the landscape.
Many, many Germans attempted the border crossing, despite it being one of the most heavily fortified borders in the world. Nearly 500 East Germans, many women and children, were killed attempting the crossing. Border guards were told to use lethal force, no matter who was involved.
It’s one of these attempts that Balloon focuses on, that of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families who, rather than try to head across a heavily fortified border on foot, decided they would fly over it, in a homemade hot air balloon.
The families spent nearly two years putting their plan into action, travelling miles and miles to purchase the fabric required, even managing to run some tests with which material was best, how to get the most out of their homemade burner and more.
Their first attempt sadly ended in failure, the balloon rose high in the air fine, but entered the clouds and the fabric became wet and heavy, as well as the pipes for the burner freezing and the flame going out. The balloon descended, quickly, and the family crashed, achingly close to the border, but on the wrong side.
This dissuaded the Wetzel’s from trying again, but not the Strelzyk’s who continued to try and perfect the balloon and the burners. The purchased more fabric, taffeta this time, telling clerks they were making a tent to try and not arose suspicion, and managed to persuade the Wetzel’s to re-join their efforts.
They made a second balloon and, on September 16th, 1979, the two families, eight people in total, managed to fly over the border, despite the balloon catching fire early in the attempt and a tear meaning they flew for less time than their first attempt.
The families landed, with just a broken leg between them, just 10 kilometres into West Germany, but that was as far as they needed.
Friedrich Mucke (“Weinber (TV)”, “Add A Friend (TV)”), plays Peter Strelzyk and Karoline Schuch (“Tatort (TV)”, “I’m Off Then”) as Doris, his wife. David Kross (“War Horse”, “Cross Of Honour”) and Alicia von Rittberg (“Fury”, “Genius (TV)”) play the Wetzel’s.
After the first attempt the powers that be found the balloon and began attempting to track down the people behind the attempt, Thomas Kretschmann (“Dragged Across Concrete“, “Stratton“) plays the Lieutenant Colonel who questions, “why do we guard the border? Why don’t we just let these traitors escape?”.
It’s an interesting question and highlights the paradox of all countries that attempt to control and dominate their people, from East Germany to North Korea.
The film does its best to bring the story to life, however, it fails to show the hardships the families faced in the East, relying on you, the viewer, to understand what they were going through.
It also cuts out one of the attempts, there were three in total, and ramps up the tension by making out the Stasi were closer to catching families then they really were. In the movie this is portrayed in many ways, one of which is by helicopters in the air, spotting the fire from the balloon.
In truth, a border patrol guard spotted them, and the search lights were turned on but weren’t powerful enough to actually see that high, and West German air traffic control saw the balloon but couldn’t identify it.
Balloon is a lovely film, well directed and very well acted and the tension is done well and affective. Whilst elements are very close to the truth, the makers have taken some liberties, I’ll leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing or not.
As for the DVD, it’s not great. The subtitles are forced right to the bottom of the screen and the aspect ratio seems straight from the cinema, so the viewing area is small and there are zero extras, which is a shame and feels like a missed opportunity.