On paper, the plight of a pair of families fleeing 1979’s East Germany in a hot air balloon sounds like fabricated fodder for a spy novel. But as implausible as it sounds, this “The Mysterious Island”-esque grand escape from Deutschland’s then walled-in, oppressive slice really did happen. And nearly four decades after being the subject of Disney’s “Night Crossing,” it is now a tale told in small-screen comedian Michael Bully Herbig’s “Balloon,” a competently made political thriller that sadly mines for suspense in all the wrong places.
Still, “Balloon” is decent entertainment to a degree, and that is mostly thanks to its handsome production values. The quaint environs and row houses of Thuringia as well as the era’s eye-popping costumes by Lisy Christl — well-tailored clothes and floral-heavy fabrics with traces of ’70s cool — are admittedly easy on the eyes. But considering the film’s stretched out running time that begs for a trim, Herbig’s period piece sustains its good-looks-based appeal only for so long. In that, the script — jointly written by Herbig, Kit Hopkins and Thilo Röscheisen — falters amid some puzzling priorities. For instance, while the actual escape from the GDR (including one desperately failed attempt early on) to the other side of the border comprises so little of the movie, the tailoring and engineering of the balloon takes up a sizable portion.
In that respect, Herbig might have studied “The Imitation Game,” a WWII-era spy picture that knew how to expertly navigate and amplify the procedural thrills leading up to its big payoff. Here, watching people shop for fabrics around town and then sew them together in secret alongside a race-against-the-clock assembly doesn’t quite wreck one’s nerves the way it sets out to. (But you’ve got to respect Ralf Wengenmayr and Marvin Miller’s bombastic score for at least trying to prescribe some unearned apprehension to the audience.)
There isn’t much to go around in the name of world-building, either. In reality, many tried to escape East Germany’s horrors by any means necessary. But in “Balloon,” the onlookers seem reduced down to one-dimensional beings: neighbors with suspicious stares, prying school teachers looking for an excuse to snitch on parents and state officials in manhunt mode add up to paper-thin observations about the period. In that same broad spirit, Herbig only vaguely hints at what’s at stake for the families we follow, occasionally lightening up the mood with a pair of era-appropriate jokes about GDR dwellers who go to extreme lengths to watch an episode of “Charlie’s Angels” and can’t freely shop for their needs from well-stocked department stores.
At least we’re in the company of a muscular cast, dedicated to selling the material at all costs. The main family is the Strelzyks — electrician Peter (Friedrich Mücke), his wife Doris (Karoline Schuch) and their two sons (a teenager and a young kid), chipping in what they can to the plan. We learn that for the past two years, the clan has been plotting their escape to West Germany alongside Günter and Petra Wetzel (David Kross and Alicia von Rittberg), by building a homemade hot hair balloon and biding their time, waiting for the right kind of wind to test their aerial luck.
But the aforementioned failed attempt reshapes the arrangement, and the partners-in-crime are left with no choice but to try again. Ruthlessly pursuing them is a colonel played by Thomas Kretschmann, who adds much-needed color to the material as a meaty villain inclined to snark. Meanwhile, a brief romantic interest for the older Strelzyk son Frank (Jonas Holdenrieder) achieves little toward ramping up the tension. It also sells the until-then logical and resourceful character short, once he conveniently reveals more than he should to his girlfriend.
Except for the haphazard-looking segments set inside the balloon, cinematographer Torsten Breuer manages to follow the chaos cleanly, landing serviceable visuals without bells and whistles. But especially after the 30th anniversary of Germany’s reunification and the ongoing global political crises about unforgiving borders keeping “the other” out, you do wish that “Balloon” had more to ponder in terms of modern-day lessons. On that front, a great film about this fascinating escape — one with real contemporary resonance — remains to be made.