Balloon is structured as a race against time thriller but it’s also a feel-good movie. Photo: Courtesy Distrib Films Credit: Distrib Film
is structured as a race against time thriller but it’s also a feel-good movie. Photo: Courtesy Distrib Films Credit: Distrib Film

Chances are that, like me, you’re in the mood to escape our current unhappy and unsettling set of circumstances. Chances also are that you’re in the mood for a movie with a happy ending. Dear readers, I have the perfect film for you – Balloon, currently streaming at Rialto’s Virtual Cinema (better known to us all as the Elmwood).

The film’s basic ingredients certainly don’t suggest it’s going to be the feel-good movie of the COVID-19 season: set in East Germany during the 1970s, Balloon (directed by Michael ‘Bully’ Herbig) focuses on two families desperately trying to defect to the West. Electrician Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke) has been conniving with student Günter Wetzel (David Kross) to design and construct a hot air balloon that will transport them safely and swiftly across the border to freedom in Bavaria.

In the immediate wake of take-off, the plan seems to be working — until moisture begins to accumulate on the balloon’s fabric, forcing the Strelzyks to ditch the conveyance a few hundred meters short of the border. The family manages to make it home, but crucial evidence has been left behind — including wife Doris’s (Karoline Schuch) thyroid medication — which will provide the secret police with vital clues.

Balloon is structured as a race against time thriller between the ever vigilant Stasi and the two families, now determined to fine-tune their balloon design for a second escape attempt. Herbig’s script (co-written with Kit Hopkins and Thilo Röscheisen) is perfectly paced: there’s literally never a dull moment, and even the film’s love interest sub-plot is neatly integrated into the story.

That sub-plot revolves around the Strelzyk’s teenage son Frank (Jonas Holdenrieter) and neighbor Klara (Emily Klusche) — who just so happens to be the daughter of somewhat hapless Stasi agent Erik (Ronald Kukulies). Yes, the man across the street belongs to the organization trying to identify and capture the traitors trying to flee the beloved German Democratic Republic!

While Erik may not be terribly effective, his boss Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann) — the cold-blooded, clear-eyed Oberstleutnant in charge of the investigation — is the precise opposite. Can the yearning to breathe free Strelzyks win the race, or will the relentless Seidel track them down first?

Though Balloon exists in a somewhat different cinematic universe than the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others (2006), it conveys similar levels of all-seeing-eye paranoia. Characters ask each other questions that can only be answered in self-incriminating ways; every stranger’s glance on the street raises eyebrows and sets off alarm bells.

Okay, my opening paragraph probably should have come with a spoiler alert, but I won’t spell out exactly what happens before Balloon draws to a close. Let’s leave it at this: if COVID-19 has left you feeling a little deflated, this film will lift your spirits.

BREAKING: Pacific Film Archive is coming to a small screen near you! If you haven’t checked out last week’s Beyond the Visible and want to support our beloved PFA, you can stream if via the Archive’s new Watch From Home app.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...