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Balloon | Review

An Air Affair: Herbig Revisits GDR Getaway in Strait-laced Thriller

Michael Herbig Balloon ReviewGerman director Michael Herbig, best known for his comedic films in his native country, makes his first international splash with period thriller Balloon, a 2018 title at last landing stateside two years after its premiere. Based on the true story of two East German families who flee to the West via a hot air balloon, Herbig is reclaiming a national escapade previously filmed by Delbert Mann (Marty, 1955) in 1982’s Night Crossing starring Beau Bridges and John Hurt. While Herbig doesn’t employ any surprising or lavish stylization to a rather straightforward rendering of the communist stranglehold on East Berlin, it’s an often taut and efficiently paced thriller intent on maximizing its potential, even if that means employing cliché to heighten suspense.

In 1979 Thuringen, East Germany, Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mucke) and Gunter Wetzel (David Kross) have been plotting to escape into West Germany via a hot air balloon they’ve designed together. But they need the right kind of wind in order to do so. When an opportunity arises, the two men disagree on taking the risk and Peter packs up his wife Doris (Karoline Shuch) and their children in an ill-fated attempt to cross the border. Unfortunately, due to precipitation, they crash near the border which alerts the authorities of their attempts. Leaving too many clues behind, Peter is forced to pressure Gunter to build another balloon and make a second attempt before the authorities can track them down.

Compared to another recent hot air balloon expose, 2019’s The Aeronauts, Herbig’s reenactment is vibrant by default. But as concerns other German language titles revisiting the crushing omnipotence of the GDR, this is a long way off from something as significantly rendered as Christian Petzold’s Barbara (2012). Aptly shot by Torsten Breuer (We Are the Night, 2011), Balloon gets by on its intense performances thanks to leads Friedrich Mucke and Karoline Schuch, while more noted cast members David Kross (The Reader; War Horse) and the usually villainous Thomas Kretschmann, have little room for characterization.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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