Two East German families want to flee to the West in 1979. That’s not unusual. What is unusual is their preferred means of escape. It’s indicated by the title of “Balloon.” Starting April 17, “Balloon” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner’s virtual screening room at coolidge.org.
Michael Bully Herbig’s film is a bit of a mishmash. It’s a Cold War thriller, of course, but also something of a domestic drama. Each of the families includes two children, and various conflicts emerge. It doesn’t help that the oldest boy, Frank, is making eyes at the girl across the street. It really doesn’t help that her father is an agent for the East German secret police, the Stasi. It really really doesn’t help, in a different way, that the father is portrayed as such an oaf.
“Balloon" is also a bit of a policier. Unnervingly, these are some of the best scenes in the movie. What makes this unnerving is that we’re seeing things from the Stasi’s point of view. In fact, the most compelling character in the movie is a Stasi lieutenant colonel. As played by Thomas Kretschmann, he’s at once shrewd, effective, and surprisingly reflective. “Who would we be without the border?” he says to some underlings. “It defines us.” Notice that he says “who,” not “what.”
Frank’s parents, Peter and Doris, are played by Friedrich Mücke and Karoline Schuch with the sort of stolidity called for in a movie where characters have to keep a straight face when saying lines like “We can’t afford any mistakes.” Perhaps it sounds better in German. The film’s wittiest moment is presumably unintentional. Peter is shocked to find Doris tidying up the house as they prepare to drive off to launch the balloon. “I don’t want anyone to say I was a bad housewife," she explains. This, too, is said with a straight face.
“Balloon” manages to combine slickness and sentimentality, predictability and implausibility. The fact that it’s based on a true story — the closing credits include photographs of the actual families — does not make up for the amassing of red herrings, close calls, and occasions for head-scratching. Would the Stasi really take six weeks to start investigating what even a movie reviewer who’s never watched a single episode of “Law & Order” immediately recognizes is its best lead?
The profound and constricting strangeness that was life in the German Democratic Republic has inspired at least two very good movies: the Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others” (2006) and “Barbara" (2012). “Balloon” does not make three, even if the production designer, Bernd Lepel, clearly had a very good time going about his business. The costume designer, Lisy Christl, did, too. Check out the lieutenant colonel’s off-aubergine trench coat or Frank’s Kiss T-shirt. Awful as the look of 1979 was on this side of the Iron Curtain, it was that much worse over there.
Directed by Michael Bully Herbig. Written by Kit Hopkins, Thilo Röscheisen, and Herbig. Starring Friedrich Mücke, Karoline Schuch, Thomas Kretschmann. Available digitally via Coolidge Corner, coolidge.org. 125 minutes. Unrated. In German, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.