Here’s the kind of far-fetched tale that if they put it in a movie, you wouldn’t believe it. But this true story of an East German family fleeing to the West by flying over the border in a homemade hot air balloon is a remarkable piece of history that has been (mostly) remarkably told in this film.
After a failed first attempt, the Strelzyk family feel like they should give up on leaving East Germany in this unorthodox way, but they become inspired to try again, learning from their first failure, and making their escape balloon bigger and sturdier, not to mention now able to fit another family on board.
The excitement of the film’s opening moments, showing the execution of their first attempt and failure to make it across the border, gets this thriller off to a good start, where even the cheesy dialogue can’t bring it down. But the film loses steam in its middle section when the family take an uneventful venture into the inner city, trying to devise their follow-up plan. It’s at this point of the film when the idiosyncratic custom of East Germans acting under surveillance is revealed, but it’s also when the film feels it’s diverting the story away from its focus. It also features a small handful of thriller clichés, like a ‘gotcha’ nightmare sequence to spice up the normalcy of this section of the story (as well as its trailer).
But when the family (and film) refocus on getting a new balloon into development before the crafty Stasi get them (they always seem to be a half step behind), this race against time ramps up the tension to where it was before (and beyond), even if some of it is contrived so the film can wring as much tension as possible from this story. But it’s this story that makes the film. Balloon presents it so effortlessly without having to layer anything on thick, showing the resilience, persistence, and family cooperation that the Strelzyks demonstrate.
This particular story got the Walt Disney Studios treatment back in 1982 with the film Night Crossing, which made this escape out to be more adventurous (and also had the Germans erroneously played by English-speaking actors), but the real-life families seem to be happier with this German version, which plays out more as a thriller than as an adventure romp.
A better, more politically insightful, and more heart-pounding film could’ve been devised from such an incredible story, but for all Balloon’s commercial and crowd-pleasing aspirations, this incredible tale still shines through and works as a basis for a very unique thrilling movie experience.