A Courageous Flight to Freedom

It’s difficult to stifle our natural tendency to be ourselves, free of the restrictions that limit our personal growth and development. However, efforts to realize the potential behind that can be thwarted when hindrances are intentionally placed before us, keeping us from moving forward. That can become particularly frustrating and burdensome when we allow it to happen, further slowing our progress and perhaps eventually leading to discouragement. Nevertheless, it is possible to overcome such obstacles and live out the life we were meant to experience, a story inspiringly portrayed in the new, fact-based German political thriller, “Balloon” (“Ballon”) (web site, trailer).

Life under authoritarian East German rule at the height of the Cold War was pervasively difficult, sometimes perilous, for the majority of its citizens. The nation’s secret police – the Stasi – were virtually everywhere, intrusively spying on the public in myriad ways, even for seemingly mundane activities, and doling out severe punishments for what it considered traitorous transgressions. What’s more, the country’s proximity to its democratic neighbor, West Germany, a nation with which it shared numerous cultural and social commonalities, served as a constant reminder of what East Germans were being deprived of under socialism. The freedom of the West was literally so near yet figuratively so far, a constant temptation to those in the East who wanted greater personal liberties, better career and education opportunities, more readily available consumer goods, and easier access to family members from whom they were geopolitically separated. So it goes without saying that there were many who quietly contemplated escape and were willing to risk the danger to attempt it. But those considering this option needed airtight plans if they hoped to succeed, given that failure could easily mean death.

In 1979 in the East German town of Pössneck, not far from the border with the West, two families began work on plans to escape. The Strelzyk family – parents Peter and Doris (Friedrich Mücke, Karoline Schuch) and children Frank and Fitscher (Jonas Holdenrieder, Tilman Döbler) – came up with a novel scheme to flee the tyranny of the East: by quietly floating over the border in a homemade hot air balloon. Working with their friends, the Wetzels – parents Günter and Petra (David Kross, Alicia von Rittberg) and children Peter and Andreas (Till Patz, Ben Teichmann) – the two families clandestinely began constructing their means of escape.

Peter Strelzyk (Friedrich Mücke, left) hurriedly prepares his homemade hot air balloon for a flight to freedom from socialist East Germany in 1979 in the new, fact-based political thriller, “Balloon” (“Ballon”). Photo courtesy of Distrib Films US.

Building the balloon came with more than its share of challenges. For example, the builders had to take ample precautions to make sure their construction materials could not be traced in case any of them were somehow intercepted, something that would almost assuredly prompt Stasi intervention. Even working on the project required care so as not to attract undue attention from officials, such as Erik Baumann (Ronald Kukulies), a “friendly” yet nosy Stasi officer who lived across the street from the Strelzyks. And, then, of course, there was the timing of the escape, which had to be precisely tied to favorable weather conditions (most notably prevailing winds out of the north, a rare occurrence in that part of East Germany). But, despite these conditions, the hopeful escapees carried on, inspired by the promise of what awaited them.

When the time for the flight to freedom came, however, a major hitch was discovered – the gondola was not strong enough to support the weight of all eight passengers. Because of that, the Wetzels chose to back out, but the Strelzyks decided that they hadn’t come this far to give up now, especially when Günter assured them that the gondola would be sufficient to transport four occupants. And so, with a favorable north wind blowing, the Strelzyk family began their courageous journey.

Under cover of darkness, the foursome began their flight. The balloon functioned perfectly, but, because there was a risk of being spotted in the night sky, they needed to ascend to a higher altitude to take advantage of cloud cover to conceal their craft. As they rose higher, the clouds provided the necessary camouflage. However, the condensation from the clouds soaked the balloon’s envelope, weighing down the craft and causing it to rapidly descend as fuel was used up more quickly than expected. And, as a result, the balloon came crashing down to earth – just shy of the border.

Trapped still inside the East, the Strelzyks fled the crash site, covering their tracks as best they could to avoid discovery by the Stasi. And, when officials found the debris, they began an intensive inquiry to find the would-be traitors, an operation headed by Lt. Col. Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann), a determined, no-nonsense investigator committed to finding the guilty parties. Meanwhile, Peter, Doris and their children sought to slip back into their daily routine as best they could, constantly looking over their shoulders to see if they were being tailed while searching for alternate ways to escape to the West, such as unsuccessfully seeking assistance from the American embassy in Berlin. But, with the investigatory noose tightening around their necks, the Strelzyks needed to move fast to come up with a new strategy.

The Strelzyk family (from left, Friedrich Mücke, Karoline Schuch, Tilman Döbler, Jonas Holdenrieder (back to camera)) begins its daring escape from East Germany in a homemade hot air balloon in 1979 in the new, fact-based political thriller, “Balloon” (“Ballon”). Photo courtesy of Distrib Films US.

Given the success they almost attained with their first flight, Peter and Doris approached Günter and Petra about building another balloon, a bigger and stronger craft capable of supporting all eight passengers. As they discussed the idea with the Wetzels, Peter and Doris learned there was an added incentive for their friends to sign on: With Günter now facing the prospect of his required East German military service, he wanted to get himself and his family out of the country before his time to report. And so, with both families on board, work began in earnest to construct the new balloon on a tight time frame while keeping from being discovered and staying ahead of the ever-intrepid Lt. Col. Seidel.

The outcome of this story, of course, is well known and thoroughly documented in the public record, so a spoiler alert about how events played out is hardly required. In fact, this tale has already been documented once before in the 1982 Disney release, “Night Crossing.” Nevertheless, the odyssey of the Strelzyk and Wetzel families is considered one of the most daring accounts of courage and determination to come out of the Cold War, a true inspiration to anyone seeking the freedom that is our birthright.

Anyone willing to risk life and limb to escape East Germany at that time had to have considerable drive and ambition – some might say desperation – to attempt it. Given how routinely and thoroughly citizens were being monitored, however, it’s understandable how frantic they were to get away. To make that happen, though, would-be escapees had to come up with strategies that they could realistically and successfully pull off. In short, it called for solid plans they could truly believe in. Fortunately, there were those – like the Strelzyks and Wetzels – who had the vision to see how to successfully make their exodus. Their scheme was, in many ways, ingenious.

No-nonsense investigator Lt. Col Seidel (Thomas Kretschmann, right) seeks to get to the bottom of an illegal hot air balloon crash in East Germany in 1979 in “Balloon” (“Ballon”). Photo courtesy of Distrib Films US.

The oppressive intrusiveness of the Stasi, of course, forced the would-be immigrants to think creatively about their flight to freedom, to come up with a strategy that could slip under the radar of the secret police. Which is what made their plan to use a hot air balloon so inspired; after all, who in their right mind would think of using such an unconventional craft for such a daring getaway? With that in mind, the cautious but hopeful architects of this initiative began their work, growing steadily more confident as they proceeded – even after an initial failure might easily have sapped their enthusiasm and derailed their efforts.

Developing this plan would not have happened were it not for its creators’ willingness to think outside of the box. This called for overcoming limiting beliefs to devise something truly inventive, a scheme that provided for their many different needs – a feasible means of transportation, an ability to be executed easily, sufficient flexibility in the face of unforeseen contingencies, and measures that could readily avoid detection, especially given the presence of children who might not be as practiced as their parents in the art of discretion. Coming up with just one of those requirements would have been difficult enough in itself, but concocting a plan that made allowances for all of them indeed took real ingenuity.

Of course, moving ahead with something as audacious as this means pushing aside one’s fears. If allowed to persist, such notions could handily undercut one’s efforts, keeping desired outcomes at bay. Admittedly, this could be difficult to achieve in an environment where scrutiny and paranoia run rampant, not unlike the conditions the would-be escapees faced under the Stasi. But, if the will to flee is as strong as its adherents claim it is, they must find it within themselves to forge and embrace thoughts centered around courage and heroism. Such beliefs not only help them to achieve what they set out to do, but they also reinforce their efforts along the way, providing an impetus to strive onward toward accomplishment.

What’s most important in all this, though, is the inspiration that the creators’ efforts engender, both among themselves and as examples to others. Considering the harrowing conditions that the Strelzyks and Wetzels were up against, onlookers would likely be hard-pressed to feel sympathy for those with lesser challenges who woefully bemoan their circumstances. Given their plight, it’s truly astounding what the East German runaways were able to accomplish. They genuinely serve as beacons of hope to anyone seeking to attain sought-after goals under pressing conditions. Indeed, if they can do it, so can we.

After an initial failed attempt at escaping East Germany in a homemade hot air balloon in 1979, eight courageous individuals try again in a second attempt as depicted in the new, fact-based political thriller, “Balloon” (“Ballon”). Photo courtesy of Distrib Films US.

Not to be confused with the Chinese cinematic fable of the same name, “Balloon” presents a gripping saga of the two families and their heroic venture. This fact-based German political thriller effectively captures the pervasive sense of fright that everyday citizens felt under the scrutiny of the Stasi just in going about their regular routines, let alone in attempting such a bold feat as this. While the picture occasionally overdoes it in its efforts to create dramatic tension, it nevertheless conveys an otherwise-authentic feel of what it was like to live under such stressful conditions – and the desperation to escape it and find a life of freedom. This is rock solid thrill-ride entertainment at its best with a hefty dash of inspiration thrown in for good measure. “Balloon” has primarily been playing the film festival circuit, but a wider theatrical release is in the works.

The price of freedom is sometimes a high one, as the characters in this film come to discover for themselves. However, when the rewards it offers are taken into account, it’s a ticket well worth the admission cost. Their value becomes ever sweeter when experienced firsthand, enabling us to tangibly enjoy what we may have only once dreamed about. And there’s no hot air in that.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

Looking for the Big One

When we come into the home stretch of our lives, we hope to settle our accounts, make amends and, one would hope, make a splash while we still can. But that process may prove challenging, especially if we’re loaded down with baggage, have difficulty making changes and come up against unexpected obstacles. Can we persevere under those conditions? That’s the test put to an elderly businessman looking to wind up his affairs in the new Finnish drama, “One Last Deal” (“Tuntematon mestari”) (web site, trailer).

Aging, ailing Helsinki art dealer Olavi Launio (Heikki Nousiainen) is contemplating retirement but with a definite sense of regret. He’s never achieved the success that he had hoped to attain, mostly selling second-rate pieces from the estate sales of deceased widows with less sophisticated tastes. His cluttered, shabby-looking gallery is filled with unsold works, many of which receive only minimal interest from would-be buyers (and then only from those who are looking to bargain the prices down from what Olavi’s asking). What’s more, Olavi’s business practices are sorely out of date. In addition to having amassed a pile of debts, he’s behind the times in many ways: he keeps all his sales records manually, his client list consists of a ragtag collection of yellowing index cards and he doesn’t even own a computer, something that has caused him to lose out on a lot of sales to online customers. It’s obvious he’s a genuine art lover, but, given how he does business, is it any wonder that he’s barely staying afloat – and that he’s understandably discouraged by his track record?

To make matters worse, the widower doesn’t have much of a personal life. He lives alone, and he has little contact with others, except for a fellow art dealer, Patu (Pertti Sveholm), who faces many of the same business challenges. Olavi’s only family members, his daughter, Lea (Pirjo Lonka), and his sometimes-troublesome teenage grandson, Otto (Amos Brotherus), have little contact with him, mainly because of a lack of support over the years, including during some especially tough times in their lives. He even seems reluctant to help out Lea when she asks him to give Otto an internship to help him fulfill his school’s mandatory job training requirements, a request to which he eventually begrudgingly relents. Indeed, Olavi really is a loner who seems to enjoy his solitude while ironically abhorring it at the same time.

Art dealer Olavi Launio (Heikki Nousiainen, right), and his grandson, Otto (Amos Brotherus, left), investigate the background of an unsigned portrait by an unnamed master to determine its possible worth in the moving Finnish drama, “One Last Deal” (“Tuntematon mestari”). Photo by Cata Portin, courtesy of Making Movies Oy.

What Olavi wants most at this point in his life is an opportunity for one last big score, one that he believes will help him vindicate his past and allow him to go out on top. And, interestingly enough, just such an opportunity arises when he visits a nearby auction house. While perusing a collection that’s being prepared for auction, Olavi comes upon a portrait of what he believes to be a peasant, a radiant rendering that positively captivates him. However, when he tries to find out more about it, there’s little information available, and the self-absorbed auctioneer (Jakob Öhrman) is disinterested in offering additional help. The painting is unsigned and has been merely attributed to “an unknown master,” but Olavi believes that vague description undersells what it really is.

With Otto’s help, Olavi investigates further. After some dogged, inventive sleuthing, the unlikely duo discovers that the portrait is actually a little-known work by Russian-born master Ilya Repin (1844-1930), a painting from a private collection that was once on loan to a Swedish museum. And, as their research further reveals, the painting is not that of a peasant (one of Repin’s specialties) but, rather, the artist’s depiction of Christ (hence the portrait’s title, Kristus).

Thanks to those revelations, Olavi would appear to have found his goldmine, and, since no one else seems to possess the information he’s uncovered, he would appear to be perfectly positioned to pounce on a bargain. What’s more, to sweeten his prospects, Olavi has a buyer in mind, Albert Johnson (Stefan Sauk), a wealthy Swedish collector of religious art. It would seem as though everything is in place for that big score to hit paydirt.

Art dealer Olavi Launio (Heikki Nousiainen, left) and his long-estranged daughter, Lea (Pirjo Lonka, right), guardedly seek reconciliation after years of strain in director Klaus Härö’s heartfelt work, “One Last Deal” (“Tuntematon mestari”). Photo by Cata Portin, courtesy of Making Movies Oy.

However, at the time of the auction, the bidding runs higher than expected. Despite his searing desire to come up the winner, Olavi is initially reluctant to make a bid as the price starts to soar. When he finally enters the fray, he’s looked upon as an unlikely bidder, prompting other would-be owners to wonder what he knows, which only serves to drive the price even higher. Yet Olavi remains steadfast, staying in the bidding, despite the price. And, when he eventually comes up the winner, he suddenly finds himself in possession of a painting he can’t realistically afford.

After a painful, emotionally draining process to raise the cash he needs to pay for the portrait, he believes he’s cleared his last hurdle. But, shockingly, more unexpected challenges await, sending even greater shivers down Olavi’s spine. What’s he to do now that he’s sitting on a potential fortune that he cannot capitalize on? That’s what he’s up against as he seeks to complete that final deal.

One can’t help but feel for Olavi. In many ways, he seems like a broken man, both professionally and personally, and the compassionate among us would certainly like to see him turn things around. However, given how the patterns of his life have persisted and the hand he appears to have had in their unfolding, boundless sympathy for his plight might be hard to come by. He truly is an art lover, which is assuredly noble, but he’s apparently been so obsessive about it that he’s been lax when it comes to other areas of his life. In fact, one could even say that he’s been oblivious to his circumstances, such as when he cluelessly asks a financially strapped Lea if she could loan him money to help cover the cost of the Repin portrait.

So how did Olavi get himself into these circumstances? It comes down to where he’s chosen to focus his consciousness, channeling it into a tunnel vision perspective on his existence. That may not be a particularly desirable or beneficial outlook, but it’s what characterizes his reality. It’s an existence with a rather dim and limited worldview. It’s no wonder he feels so unfulfilled.

Art dealer Olavi Launio (Heikki Nousiainen, left) and his longtime colleague, Patu (Pertti Sveholm, right), face difficult times as their market changes in the moving Finnish drama, “One Last Deal” (“Tuntematon mestari”). Photo by Cata Portin, courtesy of Making Movies Oy.

To his credit, though, at least he realizes this when he envisions the prospect of retirement after a big score, one that he hopes will make up for past failings. The fact that he has come up with this idea, and even shared with Patu, shows that he’s earnestly set the process in motion, even if he hasn’t devised the specific means for making it happen. Nevertheless, the seeds of the notion have been planted to materialize such an outcome.

Various factors contribute to this process. For example, Olavi spends considerable energy tapping into his intuition. He rightfully suspects that a bright prospect exists somewhere, even if he hasn’t found it. And then, when he sees the Repin portrait for the first time, he’s instantly mesmerized by a painting that hasn’t received much attention from or billing by the auction house. Olavi intuitively recognizes that it’s a special piece, even if no one else does. At this point, the opportunity has successfully materialized, but what comes of it depends on what Olavi does to capitalize on it. Will he rise to the occasion?

What happens next depends to a great degree on Olavi’s ability to overcome limitations in his outlook, to think outside the box. That may be easier said than done, however, given how closed off he has been for much of his life. It’s not impossible, though, especially when inspired by way of example, something that Otto’s presence helps to make possible. Because of the unconventional research methods the teenage sleuth uses, he’s able to verify the painting’s authenticity, something that encourages Olavi to act on his hopes to make that big killing he’s seeking.

Naturally this calls for overcoming fears and living courageously. Olavi certainly has his share of those, given how events in his life have unfolded, both personally and professionally. However, if he truly wants to make the most out of the opportunity that has now presented itself, he must sincerely get past those hindrances if he expects to move forward. He also needs to have faith that circumstances will turn out as they’re supposed to, even when unexpected hurdles reveal themselves. If he allows himself to become discouraged, he’s not likely to arrive where he wants. But, if he believes in the possibility of redemption, especially when it comes to overcoming the fears that have been holding him back, he just might attain his goal.

Lea (Pirjo Lonka), the long-estranged daughter of an ailing and aging Helsinki art dealer, seeks to make peace with her father through his acquisition of an unknown work by a Russian-born portrait master in “One Last Deal” (“Tuntematon mestari”). Photo by Cata Portin, courtesy of Making Movies Oy.

This moving, heartfelt drama admittedly has some formulaic and predictable elements woven into its narrative, but the intriguing story line and fine performances by its excellent ensemble cast make for touching and engaging cinema. Director Klaus Härö presents viewers with richly layered, multidimensional characters, skillfully fleshed out to a degree not often seen in most contemporary releases. Above all, though, it’s truly refreshing to see a picture that’s both intelligent and emotional at the same time, a testament to the production’s direction and writing. This little-known Finnish offering has primarily been playing the film festival circuit, but it’s definitely time well spent if you get the chance to see it.

When the gate’s about to close, we scurry to get past it before it’s completely shut. That may be a tricky proposition, but we can succeed as long as we’re committed to believing it’s possible and being willing to see it through. And, if we go about it with perseverance and panache, we just might end up with our own work of art.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Viewing Suggestions for Difficult Times

With nearly all theaters closed during this difficult time, we’ve been relegated to watching movies from home on DVD, Blu-ray, video (for you old-schoolers out there), streaming services, or cable or satellite TV. But what should you watch?

Well, there are certainly lots of cinematic options out there, but, if you need some help making selections, I know of a few books that might be able to help you out with recommendations – Get the Picture?!: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies, Consciously Created Cinema: The Movie Lover’s Guide to the Law of Attraction and Third Real: Conscious Creation Goes Back to the Movies. (I know the author personally, so I can vouch for these titles!) In these three books, you’ll find reviews of hundreds of films that contain meaningful content in a wide variety of genres. You might even enjoy the writing in these award-winning offerings.

Find out more about all three books, available in print and e-book formats, by clicking here.

Book cover designs by Paul L. Clark, Inspirtainment.

Copyright © 2020, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.