Its hard to think of a more significant moment in late 20th century history than the fall of the Berlin Wall. Marking the end of the division of Germany between the Communist East and Capitalist West and cold war paranoia on November 9th, 1989. Michael Herbig’s drama Ballon begins a decade before this, telling the story of the Strelzyk family who attempted to cross the border between the two states using a hot air balloon. A larger than life story told in a fast-paced drama, that could have used a little more breathing room to allow some of the more challenging moments to realise their full potential.
Ballon opens with a brutal contradiction of life in the German Democratic Republic controlled East, with an escapee being brutally executed intercut with schoolchildren singing Soviet propaganda. It’s a nice technique that immediately presents the idea of violence being possible at any moment, suiting the film’s uncanny valley realisation of small-town German living. Everything is oversaturated, and the characters almost comical realisations of real-world figures. None more so than the Strelzyk family’s neighbour who works as the Stasi’s Head of Security, who reaches Inspector Clouseau levels of obliviousness as the family carry out their plan.
Within the first twenty minutes, we see the Strelzyks attempting and escaping from a botched attempt in a furiously intense sequence backed by a Hans Zimmer styled score and very swift editing. It really works as a contrast to the exposition-based introduction, a sudden departure illustrating their desperation to escape rationing and brutal regime for the safety of Berlin. It never goes back to these calmer moments however, choosing to keep the overactive score by Ralf Wengenmayr playing constantly. In some of the more exciting moments it fits well, but when you’re watching a scene of someone sewing frantically with a full string ensemble it begins to feel a little bit ridiculous.
A lot of the film resides within the ridiculous and takes brief stop offs in the infuriating. The family consistently make self-sabotaging decisions, including a plot line about the eldest son Frank (Jonas Holdenrieder) and the Stasi neighbour’s daughter that is both predictable and tiresome. The inclusion of irrelevant dramatic tension like this leads to the paranoia and introspective terror of the overarching plot also being diluted, and the film feeling less coherent as a whole. The performances are solid throughout, with the father of the family Peter (Friedrich Mucke) giving a very emotive performance as he toils with the desire to escape against the hell, he’s currently putting his family through.
Ballon has an interesting premise, and when it works it’s a very interesting film. Sadly it’s too interested in displaying itself as a bombastic thriller that it becomes hard to take seriously. There’s a unique story buried here but it never reaches the heights it deserves.