Fall of Berlin Wall: Up, up and away

It’s been 30 years this month since the fall of the Berlin Wall and it’s hard to remember what a wonderful surprise that historical event was and how much it changed Europe.

Up, up and away (photo credit: Courtesy)
Up, up and away
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s been 30 years this month since the fall of the Berlin Wall and it’s hard to remember what a wonderful surprise that historical event was and how much it changed Europe. While once, tourists visiting Germany used to stare across the border, now you need a tour guide to find where the border between East and West Germany used to be, except for a few carefully marked spots.
Balloon, a well-made, fact-based thriller about two East German families who try to flee in a hot-air balloon in the late ‘70s, brings back all the drama of the Cold War. While it isn’t a deep look at the paranoia and corruption that go hand in hand with the kind of surveillance necessary to maintain a totalitarian dictatorship, like the brilliant 2006 film about East Germany, The Lives of Others, it is effective in recreating the intrusive and oppressive nature of that Communist regime. While only a tiny brave and lucky few managed to escape, the odds didn’t discourage thousands from trying to make this one-way journey. As the titles at the beginning of the film inform us, between 1976-1988, 38,000 East Germans tried to escape to the West and 462 of them were killed. And although with 20/20 hindsight, it’s easy to see that USSR was losing its grip, back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it seemed to most of us – and certainly to the citizens of Communist countries – as if these governments would stay in power for decades, if not centuries.
But Peter and Doris Strelzyk (Fredrich Mucke and Karoline Schuch) seem like they have it made, or at least, are among the more privileged citizens of Possneck, a bucolic village. They are an attractive couple with two cute kids. Peter is an electrician and earns enough to buy the family a car and a television set, luxuries few could afford. They are friendly, or as friendly as they need to be, with their neighbor, a Stasi agent (Ronald Kukulies) with a beautiful daughter (Emily Kusche), and their older son, Frank (Jonas Holdenrieder), is dating her.
They seem like a poster-perfect family, but they aren’t. Doris’ brother was arrested trying to flee years ago and the brutality inflicted on him haunts her. They worry that their children face limited opportunities and are fed up with forced displays of patriotic feeling. And they are secretly building a hot-air balloon that will carry them across the border with their friends, Petra (Alicia von Rittberg) and Gunter (David Kross).
Before you can ask what could possibly go wrong, you’ll get a crash course in the perils of hot-air ballooning, particularly in sub-optimal wintery weather. Balloon is filled with nail-biting scenes where you root for the heroes. A little bit of subtext is supplied by Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann), a police agent tracking the couples, who have left behind some clues as they created the balloon for their journey. He is intelligent and seems to admire their daring, even as he pursues them. Seidel alone, who is part of the system of oppression, seems to have at least an inkling that this system won’t be around forever.
The story was filmed previously in 1982 as Night Crossing, an English-language movie starring John Hurt and Jane Alexander. That movie was decent, but seeing this story in German obviously adds quite a bit. The cast is uniformly strong, with Fredrich Mucke and Karoline Schuch giving particularly appealing performances as the central couple. Schuch appeared a few years ago in an Israeli film, Hanna’s Journey, about a young woman who volunteers to work with Israelis with disabilities and ends up discovering some secrets about her family.
Other than Seidel, there isn’t a lot of complexity in this film. This is a movie for people who want to see a gripping adventure based on a true story and revisit an interesting period in recent history, nothing more and nothing less.