Dir: Michael Herbig
Photograph: Marco Nagel/Studiocanal GmbH
It can sometimes seem as if the ability to make a genuinely nerve shredding thriller (as opposed to a very creepy horror film) is something of a lost art, but cinema critic Barry Normal has just seen one of the best actual thrillers he can remember, and it’s one with a very interesting twist – a true story, and one in which the protagonists fate is already known.
The last really good thriller I saw was the screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel ‘The Two Faces Of January’, and I vividly recall looking over my shoulder as I left the cinema after two hours of tension set amongst the ancient ruins of Crete. ‘Films as good as that are rare’, I remember thinking, it’s more usual for a film of this kind to either lose its plot slightly, or to get a bit too gory.
Neither of these things happen in ‘Balloon’, although you will find the actual edge of your seat significantly misshapen after watching one of the best thrillers – and perhaps the best German film – that I can remember seeing.
Photograph: Marco Nagel/Studiocanal GmbH
In 1979, and at the third attempt, dissatisfied East Germans Gunter Wetzel (played by Peter Kross) and Peter Strelzyk (played by Frederich Mucke) escaped to West Germany, along with their wives and young families. In a hot air balloon. This actually happened, and the makers of what is the second film based on the story (after 1982’s ‘Night Crossing’) very obviously took to the subject with genuine enthusiasm. What could have been a stilted, credibility-straining and potentially comedic film is in fact an only too believable and unremittingly tense two hours and five minutes. It captures the atmosphere of 1970s East Germany with what seems like highly detailed accuracy, and it is also superbly acted.
Exactly why the escape is happening isn’t much dwelt upon. We are given to understand that the former East Germany was somewhere that more or less everyone wanted to leave, unless they were being paid to stay there. It is mentioned that Strelzyk was prevented from following a science career on account of the activities of his father, but aside from that it seems that the combination of an overbearing state and the knowledge that West Germans had reliable electricity supplies was enough to persuade Kross’s convincingly determined Wetzel and Mucke’s only slightly more reluctant Strelzek to risk their own and their families lives in what seems like an actual suicide mission. As they develop their balloon design and go about finding the necessary materials with the police, border guards and Stasi closing in on them, the relentlessly claustrophobic atmosphere consistently keeps the tension building.
On a visit to Berlin, where the Wetzel family attempt to contact the US embassy, it really does seem as if they aren’t going to make it and a disturbing vignette sees them arrested, and Wetzel’s teenage son killed, until it is revealed that this is only a hotel room nightmare, courtesy of Wetzel’s increasing paranoia, He isn’t alone in this though, as both the deeply cynical Police Oberstleutenant Seidel, and the Wetzel’s neighbour Jorge Franck are at least equally as nerve wracked by what is happening.
Thomas Kretchmann’s performance as Seidel is somehow at the centre of the narrative of ‘Balloon’. Here we are shown the East German state at its most ruthless, with no one escaping suspicion of treachery, as is shown in a chilling scene where Seidel questions the kindergarten teacher of Strelzyk’s three year old son. As the clues towards who the balloonists are begin to match up, it really does seem as if his single mindedness is going to rewrite history and see the Wetzels and Strelzyk’s caught at the fortified border. Cornelius Schwalm’s nervously blustering Franck is a more complicated character, a neighbour of the Wetzels who, knowing that Gunter Wetzel is a bit of a handyman, asks that he fit an enhanced ariel to his television, so that he can watch ‘Charlie’s Angels’ on ZDF. This is complicated by the fact that Franck is in fact a member of the Stasi, and as he is drawn into the hunt for the balloonists obviously has his own reasons for pointing the investigation away from his own patch.
Any hints of collusion or sympathy between the balloonists and the authorities are very definitely played down, and while it might seem that theirs was an impossible journey without a few blind eyes turned, it is never made clear if Franck or anyone else actually knew what Wetzel and Strelzyk were planning, and as they make their escape with actual minutes to spare the film’s pace quickens until it seems inevitable that they will in fact be shot down over the watchtowers that separated southern Saxony from Bavaria.
Both the real Wetzel and Strelzyk were less than happy with the 1982 Disney version of their story, and ‘Balloon’ lacks any hint of sentiment or overt pro-western propagandising. Its recreation of the East German 1970s is entirely convincing, the acting is consistently excellent and it’s a believably dramatised version of events. Perhaps slightly over dramatised, but then it wouldn’t be as successful a thriller as it actually is.
Words: Barry Normal