Balloon, the story of two families attempting to escape the German Democratic Republic via hot air balloon, doesn’t waste any time getting right into the action. After an overwrought opening montage, showing people trying to escape East Germany and dying, with a choir of singing German children, director Michael Herbig jumps right to the day of the flight.
The journey becomes a rush to takeoff while the wind is just right, and in the mad dash to get out of the GDR, one of the two families planned for the trip is left behind. The escape attempt takes place in the dead of night and after less than half an hour in the sky, the homemade balloon crashes back down, merely yards away from their goal on the other side of the wall. With no other options, the Strelzyk family, led by father Peter (Friedrich Mücke) and his wife, Doris (Karoline Schuch) must make their way back home and pretend like their escape never happened, constantly afraid that they’ll get caught, while also planning their next attempt. This all sounds thrilling, but in execution, Herbig can’t make Balloon exciting even when its characters are crashing from hundreds of feet in the sky.
It’s an intriguing place to start Balloon, and in doing so, screenwriters Kit Hopkins, Thilo Röscheisen, along with Herbig make this harrowing journey more about the fear of getting found out and trying to find another way to leave. Making matters even more difficult is Oberstleutnant Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann), who is investigating the mystery of who got so close to escaping the GDR by a giant balloon. Seidel ends up as little more than the German version of Tommy Lee Jones’ Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, but in Balloon, his actions end up feeling too over-the-top for the crime that didn’t actually happen. By the time he’s interviewing teachers to see if a child maybe mentioned a balloon trip in class, or going through all medical records in a small town in order to find the culprits, it truly feels like his attention could be better used elsewhere.
One of the smartest choices that Hopkins, Röscheisen, and Herbig present in Balloon is how the Strelzyk and the Wetzel family who attempt to escape with them are not criminal masterminds. The balloon launches are replete with problems right from the beginning, they leave evidence all over, and their plans to escape without anyone knowing are foiled by the son, Frank Strelzyk (Jonas Holdenrieder), who tells his next door crush that he’s leaving soon. They try to do their best given what they have, but their efforts are still fraught with mistake after mistake.
But Balloon’s most glaring fault is Herbig’s inability to keep any tension going for any worthwhile amount of time. Mostly known for German comedies, Balloon is outside of Herbig’s talents as a director. Instead, Balloon is almost completely humorless, and while it seems like Herbig thinks he’s building pressure in an effective way, every moment that is supposed to feel stressful falls flat. Balloon manages to still tell a mostly engaging story, but the overwhelming coincidences and lack of any real stakes leaves Balloon feeling like a watered down Argo.
Balloon’s true story to escape the GDR in 1979 is a powerful and exciting premise, but Balloon is neither of those things. Balloon, rather, is a tepid, airless little thriller that has its moments, but they can’t fill this daring journey with the drama and guts it needs.