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In 1979, two families escaped East Germany by constructing a hot air balloon and flying/riding/taking (not sure what the correct verb is) it over the border to West Germany. In 1982, their story was brought to life by Disney in a theatrical film, Night Crossing. At the time, many people considered it to be one of Disney’s most serious films ever. Today, we’re gonna take a look at this film.
And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!
The movie opens up with a narration against a newsreel explaining the situation of Germany in the 1960s. Germany was split into East Germany and West Germany with the former being the communist state and the latter being the democratic state. Many East Germans desired to live in West Germany prompting many of them to flee towards West German. The officials soon put a stop to this by erecting a border between the two states. Still, many East Germans tried to find other ways to escape into West Germany undetected.
We then cut to the year, 1978, and to a town in East Germany. We’re introduced to two families: the Strelzyks and the Wetzels. The Strelzyks are composed of the husband, Peter, played by John Hurt, his wife, Doris, played by Jane Alexander, and their two sons.
The Wetzels are composed of the husband, Günter, played by Beau Bridges, his wife, Petra, played by Glynnis O’Connor, and their two much younger sons.
These families hate living in East Germany, Peter, more so than anyone else. When he hears that a teenage family friend tried escaping over the border to West Germany and was shot dead by the border patrol, this serves as the last straw for Peter! He’s now ready to do something about getting out of East Germany!
He gets an idea that he soon shares with Günter about constructing a hot air balloon to fly surreptitiously into West Germany. Günter laughs at the idea, at first, but as the plan progresses, he’s soon seduced. After all, he works for Peter, and they do independent contracting work, so they are physically able to construct the balloon. They then try to convince their wives of the plan who, at first, laugh it off also, but soon acquiesce as well.
Peter and Günter spend the next few weeks learning about how a hot air balloon works, buying huge amounts of cloth/material to make the balloon, etc. They have to do their best to keep their plans secret so that the authorities don’t find out what they’re doing. Their behaviors and exuberant purchases do raise some eyebrows here and there, but they manage to get through all that with no problems.
Once the balloon is completed, Peter and Günter take it out to an open, remote, field to test it. Their first attempts are not successful as they can’t get their burner to heat long enough to inflate the balloon.
Meanwhile, Petra has been getting nightmares and doubts about the whole project’s success and doesn’t want them, especially her kids, to die. She convinces Günter to back out of the project. He is hesitant, but understands her concerns and the fact that their kids are much younger than the Strelzyks’ kids. He tells the news to Peter who also reluctantly understands. Peter suggests though that the Strelzyks and Wetzels shouldn’t see each other much from now on as when the Strelzyks leave, the Wetzels would most likely be questioned about it. And it’ll be better if the Wetzels can honestly say they don’t know anything about when or where the Strelzyks have gone.
Now, Peter utilizes his elder son’s help to fix the problems with the balloon. Soon enough, all the kinks have been taking care of and the balloon is ready for flight.
On July 3, 1979, the Strelzyks head out secretly to the field one night, get the balloon “up and running”, and are soon airborne floating in their vehicle of creation! As they approach the border, they’re spotted by a border guard, but manage to get covered by clouds before the border guard can investigate the matter further. It’s not long after that the balloon starts to descend and crash lands near the border zone. Unable to tell if they’ve made it fully across the border, Peter goes out to check where they’ve landed. Sadly, they didn’t cross the border and were literally only a few hundred feet away!
Before the Strelzyks can deal with their disappointment, they have to hurry back to their hometown as the border guards discovered the crashed hot air balloon. They soon call the Stasi, the East German state security, onto the scene. The leader of the Stasi is Major Koerner, played by Günter Meisner, and he wants the Stasi to find out who flew in the balloon and where they are now.
Luckily, the Strelzyks manage to get back home without detection. Over the next few days though, Peter is disappointed and upset with himself that the plan didn’t work. But, through the moral support of his wife and children, he’s brought back up to spirits especially when one of his sons suggest they build another hot air balloon and try it again! After all, the Stasi are still investigating and won’t stop until they find the Strelzyks. And should they find the Strelzyks, it’s not gonna end well! So, they might as well take another shot at escaping to West Germany!
Peter soon after meets with Günter and his family to persuade them to come back with them this time. After hearing about how the first balloon succeeded in making it that far along with hearing that Petra’s mother is sick in West Germany, the Wetzels soon agree to joining the Strelzyks on their second attempt.
A few months later, they’ve constructed a new hot air balloon, a bigger one to hold all eight of them. They then take the balloon to the same field and thankfully, it works! But, just like the last balloon, it crashes after being in the air for about half an hour. They’re not sure whether they’ve made it or not and are scared when a policeman comes upon them and asks who they are. Peter hesitantly asks if they are in the West to which the policeman, a bit puzzled, responds with, “Of course, you are.”. The movie ends with the Strelzyk and Wetzel families rejoicing over having made it across.
And that was Night Crossing. What can I say? Well, it’s an interesting film. It brings to life a story that most people, including myself, probably never even heard of before. I generally do like biopics and films based on true events, so I am grateful that I got a chance to watch this film. Apparently though, the two families had a falling out afterwards in real life, but at least we can see their good times together through this film.
The film manages to have suspenseful moments what with the construction of the balloon, the families trying not to get caught by anyone in the town, the Stasi hot on their trail, etc. Also, John Hurt’s performance is simply impeccable and his voice just brings excellent delivery to every line that he says!
However, those are probably the only amazing things about the movie. Everything else is just ok. The other actors’ acting range from not that great to just ok. The overall look of the film seems to be somewhat small in size and just ok, as Disney films of this time tended to be.
Everything else is just ok which is why this film won’t get a particularly high rating from me. Having said that, I do recommend you to check it out though! It’s worth seeing at least once! And even though I merely liked it, maybe one of you will absolutely love this film!
(You can click on the image below for an enlarged version of my rating sheet.)
So, the final score for this film is 24/35 = 68.57% (D+) !
The next review will be posted on April 4th.