Movies about 20th-century Germany tend to focus on, well, you know. Thirty years after East and West reunified, however, “Balloon” serves as a reminder of what the country went through once World War II gave way to the Cold War — and why it still matters.
Unfortunately, Michael Bully Herbig’s film — telling a story previously dramatized in the 1980s Disney movie “Night Crossing” — plays out with such unconvincing drama that you might be left wondering whether its based-on-a-true-story subject matter would have been better served by a documentary.
It begins on Youth Dedication Day, when eighth-graders in the East are loosed upon the world after pledging their allegiance to socialism, and quickly reveals the title’s significance as a handful of floating blue balloons alert a family of would-be defectors that the time has come. Herbig treats it as a given that anyone living in the Soviet-controlled East would risk their lives to escape, as do most contemporary accounts of the Cold War, which initially lessens the impact of the real-life scheme the film dramatizes: literally flying over the border in a small, homemade hot-air balloon.
The decision to do so, and the work that went into building the haphazard device, all take place before “Balloon” begins. The hardships that spurred such drastic action are likewise omitted, which seems an odd choice on Herbig’s part until the film takes its first narrative turn. The expected climax — namely, the initial flight, which is both perilous and unsuccessful — takes place at the 25-minute mark, leaving you to wonder where the family (and, for that matter, the film itself) goes from here.
The answer is simple: home, where they have no choice but to pretend like they didn’t just commit an act that their countrymen would consider a grave betrayal.
As it turns out, watching them attempt to blend in and avoid suspicion while plotting a second escape proves more compelling than either balloon flight. Friedrich Mücke leads the film as Peter Strelzyk, husband to Doris (Karoline Schuch) and father to two children, who has to put on one face in public and another at home. His performance anchors “Balloon” even as it threatens to float away; the strong, silent type, Peter keeps his composure while also hinting at the turmoil within.
You might feel a mix of dread and amusement watching a boardroom full of governmental agents pore over every last detail of the attempted escape, including a map on the wall with pins marking key locations; dread because you worry for the family, amusement because taking this one act so seriously almost seems farcical. But then again, the ridiculousness of oppressive regimes has always lent itself to dark humor — look no further than “Jojo Rabbit” and “The Death of Stalin” for recent examples.
Herbig doesn’t play up the potential for comedy, instead treating every moment of the film with an almost funereal seriousness. At times this has the opposite of its intended effect. He leaves so little breathing room (and, just as crucially, space to form your own response to all this) that “Balloon” is more suffocating than exhilarating.
It feels like an attempt to transpose the mix of thrills and prestige of a film like “Argo” onto a different true story, a paint-by-numbers approach that’s far less compelling than drawing outside the lines would have been.