Monday 27 May 2019

German Film Festival - Barrie Pattison reports on the Opening Night - BALLOON (Michael Herbig)

The organisers clearly think, given the German media presence, that Michael "Bully" Herbig’s Ballon/Balloon is a significant picture. They used it as opening night and gave it a couple of well attended repeats. Herbig made the all-time biggest German hit movie Der Schuh des Manitu/Manitou’s Shoe(2001). Think Old Shatterhand via Blazing Saddles or Jim Abrahams and the Zuckers.

This one is a total and, to me disappointing, departure from Herbig’s burlesques. It’s a conventional suspense piece aimed at satisfying your neighborhood multiplex if it were ever to get there.

It’s an account of the real life balloon escape a couple of German families made from the DDR at the height of the cold war. 

Daniel Mann made the 1982 Night Crossing for Disney on the same subject. The shortage of such films at the time it was current was remarked. There was Helmut Kautner’s exceptional 1955 Himmel one Sterne which got Horst Bucholz’ career going; Robert Siodmark’s 1962 Escape from East Berlin/Tunnel 28, Rolf Hädrich’s 1963 Verspätung in Marienborn/Stop Train 349 cheapo with its excellent cast.  However, since the re-unification of Germany these pieces have become quite common and Herbig’s doesn’t tell us anything new.

Two families in Thüringen, in East Germany have a plan to flee to the West for varying reasons - relatives on the other side of the border, impending military service. Working from diagrams they have never seen executed they construct a balloon from tent nylon on an industrial sewing machine and wait for favorable winds.

When their first attempt fails, the dynamic of the situation changes with the Stasi alerted to their activities and tracking them through a lost prescription bottle, their blue (non-Trabant) Wartberg car, their fabric orders and a weather map. The group actually made two failed attempts before their final flight. Parents Friedrich Mücke and  Karoline Schuch have to explain to young Tilman Döbler, first seen yawning during the school patriotic song, that their lying to him is not like the thing they have always told him to avoid.

Here the escaper families are just the usual good looking movie leads and the points where the film takes off deal with their police opponents. Teenage son Jonas Holdenrieder has fallen for fetching Emily Kusche the daughter of Stasi neighbor who has dad install a Pal Decoder on his regulation TV aerial so he can watch Charley’s Angels. Holdenrieder discovers that she reciprocates his affection - nice scene where she has him go kite flying with her to steal a kiss. Her incomprehension is one of the film’s resonant moments.

Another nice scene has the kindergarten teacher getting the incriminating information from her charges and, being interrogated by the cops, rising to the situation.

Even better is Oberstleutnant Thomas Kretschmann’s investigator, first seen explaining to his underlings “Without the border we are nothing.” He has a particularly chilling scene where he summons two cowered border guards from the area of the escape to the empty canteen, explaining that he chooses that over the interrogation room, and reads them the relevant section of the law which deals with the death-dealing methods to be used against escapers. His is the film’s most assured performance. The Pianist and the Dario Argento Dracula are on Kretschmann’s credits.

The film builds the required suspense as his investigation comes together at the point where his blue lamp polizei cars race through the night while the balloon inflates and in the pursuit by helicopter after the airship, which by its nature is a light in the sky. All the flying material is attention-getting in the best Stephen Spielberg taking to the air tradition.

Assured technicians include the cameraman Torsten Breuer (of Wir sind die Nacht, 2010).

The piece is a conventional OK night at the movies but I was hoping for something more like the drama hinted at in the best scenes.

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