A joke told among East Germans: A lady seeks directions to Principle’s, the department store. Principles? There is no such store, she is told. Not true, says the lady: Chairman Honecker tells us everything can be bought . . . in principle.
The German film Balloon explores the Iron Curtain from an unusual angle: above. Two ordinary families living a routine existence in Poessneck, a small East German town in 1979, yearn to escape by making their own hot-air balloon and soaring south over the border into West Germany. Some 75,000 East Germans were imprisoned for trying to make their way into the West, and about 800 were outright murdered by their own security forces in such attempts. The peril level is set at maximum, then, for these average citizens, and layered atop that is the massive danger of sailing thousands of feet up in a rickety jury-rigged contraption built by amateurs. Balloon revels in exploring the details of every possible kind of danger these people face, so it’s a nerve-wincher, a cracking good escape thriller, but that’s not all it is.
As breathtakingly plotted as the film is, it is nevertheless based on the true story of Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke) and Günter Wetzel (David Kross), who together with their wives Doris (Karoline Schuch) and Petra (Alicia von Rittberg) schemed to become the first people ever to escape East Germany in a hot-air balloon. The story was previously filmed at Disney, in Night Crossing (1982), but that retelling was much less faithful to the facts.
Balloon takes care not to exaggerate the suffering of Peter and Günter and their families. Even in a police state, it’s possible to muddle through. If they just keep their heads down, say nothing controversial and salute the Party on cue, they’ll survive, even enjoy something in the ballpark of a recognizable standard of living to Westerners. Still, there are glimpses of how a centralized economy makes everything an endless gray trudge, in which glum women line up patiently for groceries but worry that the coffee will be gone by the time they get in the store. An ideal vacation, available to the well-connected only, is a visit to Berlin. The most desirable rooms are the ones on high floors in hotels near West Berlin, so you can see all the way over to the West.
In order to earn such a vacation, though, you have to be chummy with the Party man next door. What should Peter do when the Stasi agent asks him for advice on using a gadget to pick up television signals from the West? Is this a trap meant to test his loyalty or merely a bit of harmless mischief to make it possible to view Charlie’s Angels? Unlike in The Lives of Others, the Oscar-winning 2006 film about East Germany’s web of surveillance, the characters in Balloon don’t worry about bugging devices being used against them, perhaps because they live in such an obscure town.
Yet the unstated subtext of every waking moment in everybody’s life is: Watch what you say. Be careful who you talk to. Don’t make trouble. The authorities are watching, everything and everywhere. The poison of authoritarianism is as pervasive as the cloud of sulfur dioxide that befouled the air in East Germany. A kindergartner who is being taught to be honest has to also be taught that it’s sometimes gravely important to be dishonest. The little boy might give the game away when he reveals to a teacher that his father spends most of his time in the basement sewing — he’s making the giant balloon using small scraps of cloth bought in shops all over the area so as not to arouse suspicion. When a prison is a country, the smallest children can be unwitting informers and the most prosaic acts can be treasonous. It’s this restrained, matter-of-fact quality that makes Balloon such a vivid, credible, and damning portrait.
Didn’t we already know the Soviet Union and its satellites were a great gray ghetto of despair? Well, we learned that, but I’m not sure we still know it. Some things have to be relearned, and re-re-learned. Thanks to the erasures of time and a sheepish reluctance by the worldwide cultural elites to delve too deeply into the abuses of left-wing regimes, Communist atrocities have been filed in the deep-storage sub-basements of the collective memory. So it wasn’t as surprising as it should have been when, two years ago, a film critic for Variety wondered, “Why did world-renowned Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defect? That’s the question I found myself Googling immediately after seeing Ralph Fiennes’ lovely, elegant, and curiously opaque The White Crow. . . . The film remains maddeningly ambiguous about his motives for cutting ties with the Soviet Union.” Freedom — why the heck are people so hung up about it?